Anger grows over banks' political files: MPs demand inquiry into availability of information about customers' opinions Bank's data on politics sparks furore

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The Independent Online
THE DATA protection registrar should examine political files held by banks on their customers, MPs from all parties said yesterday after the revelation that National Westminster, Britain's largest high street bank, is secretly noting the political opinions and affiliations of some of its 6.5 million clients.

Graham Allen, Labour's spokesman on data protection issues, is to table an Early Day Motion today demanding a full and open inquiry by the registrar, Eric Howe, on the 'extent and availability' of such information. He wants banks to inform customers on whom they hold political records, and explain why.

Emma Nicholson, the Conservative MP who has been instrumental in shaping computer-misuse legislation, said yesterday she was 'horrified' by the situation.

The Midland Bank conceded at the weekend that it collates information on its customers' politics in the same way as NatWest, but only as part of 'personal profiling' by which it builds up a rounded picture of clients. Lloyds and Barclays said they did not record clients' political interests.

Ms Nicholson said: 'I'm very concerned indeed that this data should be collected on customers. It's a joke . . . Big Brother come to life. I can only say I am so pleased that at last people are waking up to this problem.'

Yesterday, Mr Howe said he was not aware that banks were holding data on the politics of their customers on computer. 'I will certainly talk to the banks to establish under what circumstances they hold this information and how widespread this is. It's the passing on of such data that I need to look at carefully. I wouldn't say it was necessarily sinister, although it would be helpful if customers knew about it.' He added that he intended to analyse all 160,000 registrations recorded with him to see how many held sensitive information and why.

Civil liberties groups are concerned that such information is falling into the wrong hands via a market in personal data.

For the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes questioned the holding of political information by banks. 'All political parties, but more importantly all individuals, deserve an explanation from the bank immediately.' He also called for a 'speedy investigation' by the registrar on the wider issues of how personal information is being obtained and by whom.

John Wadham, legal director of Liberty, said: 'Anybody who is concerned following this revelation should write to their bank to get their files. That's very sensitive information. The question is, do the banks make clear to their customers the extent to which information is being collected for one purpose, retained without informed consent, and then used for another purpose entirely?'

Mr Howe said that anyone had the right to see data held on them, but could delete or erase this only if it was inaccurate, not if it was correct and 'obtained fairly'.

Banks often register themselves with the data protection authorities, not only so they can record personal data but also to enable them to pass it on to so-called 'tracing agencies' which help to track bad debts.

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