Thought for the day: Too many questions asked

Crime prevention is being used as the excuse to obtain personal information before providing basic services. Simon Moores asks...

Simon Moores  

Crime prevention is being used as the excuse to obtain personal information before providing basic services. Simon Moores asks whether organisations really need to know this level of detail



Of late, I’ve been writing about identity, what it is, what it’s not and why the promise of identity cards, biometric or otherwise, may prove only that you are what a series of easily-forged documents say you are.

If you happen to find yourself on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list because a muddled typist in an outsourced data-processing operation can’t spell your middle name, before entering it into the passport database, then tough luck.

The fight against money laundering has assumed the proportions of a farce and has 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 I have spend almost two months completing paperwork, in an attempt to open a building society account to pay in subscriptions to the Conservative Technology Forum.

First prize, however, goes to travel agent Thomas Cook.

Last week, I visited a Thomas Cook bureau de change and asked for the enormous sum of £50 to be changed to euros using my bank debit card. I was asked for my driving licence with a photo on it, my bank card, my postcode  and house number, and all of this information was recorded.

“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 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 some euros. At the Post Office, the cashier will give you euros if you show them a form of identity to support your credit card and at Tesco you can 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 which e-mailed me a statement by return.

“In effect you are 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 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 Thomas Cook says but I don’t believe that holding such data is necessary or proportionate. I then sought the advice of Philip Virgo, secretary-general of Eurim, and another leading expert on privacy in a digital society, Caspar Bowden, Microsoft’s chief privacy adviser for Europe.

Virgo is worried that such examples of invasion of privacy mandated by UK anti-terrorism (money laundering) practice will, in a short period of time, cease to become open to interpretation. They will become embedded as part of the regulatory scenery, as government points to such practice as being in common use by the financial services industry.

Ironically, Bowden presents Microsoft as a company concerned by the risks posed by the kind of information harvesting I have described. 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 12 months, many of us with bank or building society accounts, Peps and pensions have been coerced into surrendering personal information or into completing 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 building society, you will 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.”

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies, and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security .

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services, visit

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