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No Questions Asked

Of late, I’ve been writing about identity, what it is, what it’s not and why even the promise of identity cards, biometric or otherwise may prove only that you are what a series of easily forged documents say you are and if you happen to find yourself on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list because some muddled typist in an outsourced data-processing operation, two continents away, can’t spell your middle name, before entering it into the passport database, then tough luck.

The fight against money laundering has assumed the properties of farce and has, as a consequence, allowed a series of dangerously intrusive measures to enter our lives through the back door of regulatory expedience. This summer has seen me compelled to present my nine-year old daughter, in person, to the Halifax Bank, to “prove” that she is the owner of her savings account and almost two months of paperwork, attempting to open a Building Society account for subscriptions to The Conservative Technology Forum.

First prize however goes not to a bank or a building society but to the travel agents, Thomas Cook.

Last week, I visited the Bureau de Change at the company and asked for the enormous sum of fifty pounds, in Euros, on my bank debit card. “No problem Sir”, I was told, “Can I see your driving licence please, one with a photo on it?” This was duly presented and the girl typed the details into her PC. “And your bank card please.” More typing. “And finally your postcode please.” I gave here this as well and it was swiftly looked-up on her system. “Which house number please?” “Number two, I replied”, which was followed by a final burst of typing.

Do you really need to record all of this information on your system” I asked the cashier. “It’s the rules”, she replied, handing me my fifty Euros in a plastic envelope.

In a world faced by the increasing risk of identity theft, I had given Thomas Cook three of my most critical personal details in exchange for fifty euros. At the Post Office, they’ll give you Euros if you simply show them a form of identity to support your credit card and at Tesco, you’ll get cash back without any identity check at all, so why does Thomas Cook need to store this personal information?

I called the company’s press office and they emailed me a statement by return.

“Because in effect you were obtaining cash on your debit card, your card company requires Thomas Cook to obtain certain personal details for identification purposes, to ensure that the person presenting the card is the cardholder.”

“Thomas Cook Retail Limited is registered to process customer data for a number of reasons. The information we took from you is kept securely and is not divulged to any third party. The only time this sort of information would be used is if a cardholder subsequently contacted their card company to allege that their card had been used fraudulently. We would then need to prove to the card company that we had followed their procedures at the time of the transaction and had taken sufficient care to check the identity of the person who presented the card to us.”

Now I understand what they are telling me but I don’t believe that holding such data is necessary or proportionate and I then sought the advice of both Philip Virgo, Secretary General of Eurim and another leading expert on privacy in a digital society, Caspar Bowden, Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Advisor for Europe.

Virgo is worried that such examples of invasion of privacy mandated by UK Anti-Terrorism (money laundering) practice will, within a short period of time cease to become open to interpretation and will become embedded as part of the regulatory scenery, as government points to such practise as being in common use within the financial services industry. Ironically, Bowden presents Microsoft as a company concerned by the risks posed by the kind of information harvesting I’m describing, when he says, “The routine collection of identifiers and authenticators which increasingly are collected by organisations to audit and verify transactions can pose a serious risk of identity theft. Strict access controls and policy enforcement are necessary to ensure that such information will not leak out, through such means as social engineering attacks on authorised insiders.”

In the space of twelve months, many of us with bank or building society accounts, PEPS and pensions, have found ourselves coerced into surrendering personal information or having to complete customer validation, which can be simple or extraordinarily complex in the personal information they require. There appears to be no consistency in the level of detail demanded but should you, like me, attempt to challenge such a request, as I did with my own building society, you’ll find your account frozen until you comply with their demands.

Alternatively, as a policeman friend told me recently, “If you don’t want any fuss, simply open a National Savings Account or buy an English football club. No questions asked.”


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