With HMRC, nothing’s private anymore

HM Revenue & Custom’s failure to protect millions of customer records is
the largest example of an organisation failing to acknowledge the importance of
data. But HMRC is by no means an isolated case. Every day, individuals and
companies undervalue the data we have at our fingertips.

At my last company, a client of ours – an airline loyalty programme – kept
its entire customer records on a laptop that came in and out of the building
every evening.

As consumers, we are horrified when data gets lost. But we are all too ready
to give away our private and personal information. So much of our lives is being
rendered in data than ever before – CCTV cameras, Oyster cards, Tesco Clubcards
– and we are attuned to the need to hand it over rather than questioning why it
is required.

We’ve become too demanding, and frankly too lazy. We want to research, buy
and pay for everything as easily and as quickly as possible. We have been
conditioned to think that by handing over our data we will be entitled to a
better deal or offer, not that we are giving away a little bit of our soul each
time we do it.

We’ve also changed our attitudes to relationships and the way that we
communicate. We’ve begun to identify with icons and brands more than we do with
people. And suddenly companies, more than people, want to have a relationship
with us so we’ve signed up to their loyalty cards.

For the most part, the data we give is used to understand us better and give
us free stuff. And because this tactic is so successful we have started
networking to create our own loyalty programmes by inviting people to join our
own loyalty schemes (our Facebook sites).

But just as soon as you give away your personal data, it’s ‘out there’ and
someone can just as easily pick it up and use it. If Mr X from HMRC realised
that he was carrying around the souls of 25,000,000 people on two computer
discs, would he have been more careful?

I’m not suggesting that we return to the dark days of paper records, or
banish loyalty cards forever. The key is in the safeguards put in place to
protect us.

Our trust in HMRC, as part of the government, should be beyond question. Not
only has it lost our trust, it has failed to assure the 25 million families that
it has quickly – albeit belatedly – bolted the door.

Paul Alexander is CEO of data and customer strategy consultancy

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