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24 March 2006

A small victory for privacy

I have argued for a while that we obsess about age. Especially when I speak to reporters, they inevitably want to open a press release with "... Craig Cockburn, xx, ..." where xx is the number of birthdays that I have had. However, the number of times this is in fact actually relevant to the story is pretty much nil. It's no more relevant than my religion or ethnic background, yet somehow they feel this is mandatory information which must be included in the story.

So I became a bit disturbed by the increasing number of websites which were making this information mandatory. The Third Principle of the Data Protection Act concerning excess data for the purpose seems to have passed by such sites. Forthcoming legislation to outlaw age discrimination seems to be the cause. Rather than recognising that age is irrelevant and not asking it, agencies seem to be going into reverse and making it mandatory to ensure that they aren't discriminating based on age. The contradiction is that if they aren't supposed to be discriminating based on ethnic origins, race or religion why is this information still optional? Clearly any such statistical gathering, to be in line with the 3rd principle of the data protection act, must be relevant and not excessive for the purpose. If it is really necessary to gather info on age, then this must be volunteered and also an approximate age range is sufficient. The main problem with submitting age, name, address and so on via a form is the great majority of sites do not use a secure page to do so. If you wouldn't submit your credit card details on an insecure page, why would you want to do so with the exact info that someone comittting identity theft would love to get their hands on?

I am pleased to say that my lobbying on this matter has caused the Department of Work and Pensions to review their guidance in this area. Whilst not perfect, you can now read the amended guidelines on their website here.

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