The data trails that reveal every detail of our lives

Catch a train, buy groceries, shop online – and a database records the transaction. Should we worry about this? Can we stop it?

We live in the age of Big Brother. Every day, our personal paper-trails – transactions, applications, made or missed payments, shopping trolley contents, even where and when we "touch in" with electronic travel passes – build up to a detailed picture of our lives. Information on the average "economically active" person in the developed world is held on more than 700 databases, according to the think-tank Demos.

"Almost everything we do every day leaves some sort of trace," says Peter Bradwell of Demos. "From internet surfing to credit, debit and cashless cards, store cards and loyalty cards, it all provides information. People aren't aware of just how detailed that information is."

Adrian Lowcock of Bestinvest says: "Consumers would be surprised at how much data is held, to what extent their day-to-day lives generate all this information. The analysis can be very revealing. Something as minor as a postcode can tell you what someone living there earns, what they spend and where, giving a tremendous steer for financial products.

"People have little idea of the level of analysis that goes on. It's not a question of whether they have all this information, but what they do with it and how well they look after it."

Incentives

The UK high street is awash with cards offering discounts and other incentives in return for your personal details and information about how, when and where you shop.

Loyalty cards, as the name suggests, offer rewards for your loyalty, based on a points system. Points are exchanged for goods. About 15 million UK households have at least one loyalty card.

But they also collect details about your shopping habits and match them to a range of personal details from your application form, such as your address, date of birth, gender, marital status, even salary. Repeated incoming information about your basket of goods every time you shop doesn't just yield data on how often you buy broccoli, but also what illnesses you could be suffering from, or even what contraception you use.

Store and credit cards provided by supermarkets that offer discounts on your shopping glean all this information – and then charge you a huge interest rate for any unpaid debt as well.

Some loyalty cards are even linked to other companies. Nectar, for example, has partnerships with Sainsbury's, BP, Ford, EDF Energy, Hertz, Brewers Fayre, Beefeater, Talk Talk, D&A, American Express, the AA, Thomson Local, Gala Bingo, Expedia, and now Homebase. They don't hold details of exactly what you buy, but they do hold data on how much you spend every time you shop with those partners. In the same way, voucher codes and online shopping schemes that offer discounts or points towards online shopping also record your transactions in order to credit rewards.

Bradwell says: "No one forced us to have store cards or other services, and there are often valuable incentives, but people simply aren't aware of what the consequences are. This can be anything from offering a more personal service in the short term to an insurance company increasing your premium in future because they know you buy cigarettes. That's not a problem if people don't mind, but they must understand what they're really signing up for. Most people have a vague idea that their information is held, but they have no idea of the analysis and the level of detail they are providing."

Data collecting doesn't happen only on the high street. Surfing the internet leaves a trail of "cookies" – messages web servers send to your browser when you visit internet sites. They are usually used to track website activity in online shopping. Now, however, price comparison sites are using them to record information you enter or items you plan to buy.

Financial products

It is fairly obvious that if you register an electronic travel pass, such as London's Oyster card, that it tracks your movements as you "touch" in and out. But services like the Barclaycard OnePulse, for example, offer a combined credit, Oyster and "cashless" card, meaning that, as well as travel information, the cards can generate purchasing and bank details, Demos has warned.

"People are vaguely aware that companies hold their information," says Lowcock, "but this data can often be sold and resold perfectly legitimately, particularly when companies are bought and sold." Even when you tick the box on application, feedback and other forms – the one that prevents companies from passing your details on to external firms – that doesn't necessarily exclude the other companies in the group. And, thanks to the downturn, there are a number of merged or merging financial institutions. The Santander group, for example, includes Abbey, Bradford & Bingley, Alliance & Leicester and Cahoot. Lloyds Banking Group now includes Lloyds TSB, Halifax, Bank of Scotland, Clerical Medical and Birmingham Midshires. And how they share their information is all about the fine print.

For example, Clydesdale Bank is part of the National Australia Bank Group, along with Yorkshire Bank. Their "Using Personal Information" online document states: "For our internal operational reasons, we may link information concerning your accounts with us to information concerning other products and services we provide to you... We may also link your information to that of other individuals with whom you are financially associated. Such information may also include sensitive personal data, such as information relating to your health, or criminal convictions or proceedings."

As well as legal obligations in matters such as money-laundering and fraud prevention, the bank states that it will use a customer's information to "assess the suitability of our products and services for you; to analyse the operation of your accounts and services and your purchasing preferences... for market and product analysis purposes; and... for system testing purposes."

And elsewhere, the agreement clearly states that they may need to "transfer your information abroad to other Group companies, service providers, agents and subcontractors in countries where they may not have data protection laws providing the same level of protection as those in the European Economic Area, such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA." And Clydesdale's use of personal information is by no means unusual.

Is all this really a problem?

For the most part, data about you is ultimately used by a range of companies to work out how they can sell more things to you or to people like you, be that a beer, a holiday or a savings account. But you only need to start a conversation in the pub on the subject to discover how deeply divided we are over this issue – and whether it is a problem.

"Yes, all this information being freely available may mean you get more junk mail or cold calls," says Simon Webster of the independent financial adviser Facts and Figures. "You can opt out of those mailshots, and the Data Protection Act says that companies can only use our information in certain ways. There are huge fines for those who fail to comply with these laws.

"But it is just information," he adds. "In fact, it can be very handy to know about relevant deals or discounts."

However, security is an issue. "Financial companies should not hold any more information on you than they need to do business with you," says Ian Hudson of the financial adviser Hudson Green & Associates. "Most people are cynical about financial companies and others' abilities to hold that information securely. We've seen too much evidence of databases full of personal information being left in cars and trains. We need to be clear about what information is available about us as well as the accuracy of that information."

Bradwell adds: "Regardless of how you feel about privacy, we need to have a say in what is held, and for what purposes. The danger is that the information we thought was used for one purpose will be used in ways we have no idea about and have no control over."

Fighting back: How to take control of your data

Aside from reading all the fine print on any applications and ticking the "no data sharing" boxes, there are two important pieces of legislation that help to protect your information.

The Data Protection Act allows you to ask to see information held about you via a "subject access request" and demand that it is corrected if that information is wrong. You also have the right to stop your personal information being used for unwanted marketing. For full details of your rights, including instructions on how to make a subject access request, or to complain about an organisation you believe to have breached this legislation, go to www.ico.gov.uk.

This site also provides information on privacy and electronic communications regulations, which give you the right to stop electronic direct-marketing messages, including phone calls, faxes, emails and text messages.

To reduce junk mail and remove your information from mailing lists, the Royal Mail offers an opt-out registration service. Go to the "Controlling your mail" page at www.royalmail.com. To prevent cold-calling at your home, register with the telephone preference Service at www.tpsonline.org.uk or 0845 070 0707. The Demos report on data collection in the UK, "For Your Information", can be downloaded at www.demos. co.uk/files/Demos_FYI.pdf.

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    1st Line Support Technician / Application Support

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider of web based m...

    Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

    Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

    Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

    Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

    £600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel