Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Data disaster

Forget your kids, your kidneys, the keys to your porsche carrera - the most precious thing you own in this world is your Personal Data.

And like Gollum in Lord of the Rings we need to keep the precious safe, all to ourselves, and away from those hairy hobbit-like civil servants at HMRC.

Ooops, too late.

Ever since they popped that disk with 25 million people's personal information in the post to the Bermuda Triangle we've started taking a bit more interest in who knows what about us.

It was back on November 20, 2007 that Alastair Darling had to own up that the data disk had gone astray, and in the intervening eight months there have been a steady supply of information-at-large stories.

This week started with an MOD laptop containing "sensitive information" stolen from the Adelphi in Liverpool and today the spread of data despair reached the shores of the Wirral.

The Wirral Globe's splash warned: "U.S FIRM TO HAVE ALL YOUR HEALTH DETAILS". Presumably this revelation sent sales of shredders at the Birkenhead branch of W H Smith rocketing.

The thing is that while it's a great story, and I read it all the way through to find out how to opt out, no good can come of it. We waved goodbye to our data years ago. The proof of this theory? Two words: Market research.

When I worked in PR I spent a day training in data capture and TGI marketing research. It was a little bit of hell in Ealing Broadway.

What I learnt there is that there are many, many members of the British public who, if you pay them £5, will tell you everything about themselves. The questionnaire they have to fill in to collect their fiver is as thick as the Yellow Pages. It asks how much you earn, where you live, what you do, how many children you have, if you cook with stock cubes, if so how many times a week, and with what meat. It goes on and on and on - and so do the cretins filling it in.

When the results are in the real fun starts - the raw data forms the basis of a software programme that media companies pay a fortune for. It allows them to tell clients that the people who drink their brand of juice read The Times, never use stock cubes and drive their 3 children to school in a Volvo.

So, if we're giving all of this information up for less than the price of a 0845 phone call to cancel our bank cards, how come we're so worried about what happens to the information we give to the government?

It's ok for us to tell everyone on facebook our name, birthday, occupation, educational history and marital status - but if Whitehall were to put it on a disk and lose it without coughing up £5, well we'd be outraged.

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