Friday 18 October 2019

Sarah Carey: They’re presented as progress... but postcodes can kill

A sat-nav postcode for Stephen Street Lower - soon every street in Ireland will have a unique postcode
A sat-nav postcode for Stephen Street Lower - soon every street in Ireland will have a unique postcode

Hurrah! Most days I fear I’m turning into a crank. Then someone with publicly acknowledged credibility agrees with my prophetic cries in the desert and I think: There’s hope for me yet”.

No hope for the country of course, because no one is listening. What am I rabbiting on about? Why, postcodes of course. The system of “unique identifiers” for each household in the country that is laughably presented as “progress”.

At their next meeting, the members of the right-wing conspiracy can tick this one off their agenda. Postcodes are on the way.

The Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, in his Annual Report has expressed his serious concern about the system, which will create a unique identifier for every household in the state.

unique

He observes that an address is the second most important piece of information to identify a person.

He said: “The unique seven character postcode goes beyond what an address’ is because, through the use of modern technology and Big Data’, it can easily be assimilated into any sort of electronic device or dataset which could in turn be used for any purpose, ranging from State services to commercial exploitation”.

The exploitation part is what concerns me. Evidence from the UK, which has a less advanced system, shows what commercial entities can do with postcodes.

If you sent a letter to Sarah Carey, Enfield, Co Meath it would be delivered. That’s not my full address but everyone in the village Post Office knows me, and all my neighbours.

This link between Post Office staff and the people has significant social benefits you can’t buy.

But the proponents of postcodes want a computer to know the community. Because then they can refine marketing tools, especially and most destructively, financial profiling software, with a precision and ruthlessness that destroys lives.

The system has been evocatively and forensically described by the brilliant English journalist Jon Ronson, in his book, “Who Killed Richard Cullen?” Here’s how they do it.

There’s a software programme called Mosaic, that converts your postcode into a personal profile. It concludes what kind of person you are by where you live, and the more precisely they know where you live the better their “geo-demographic profile”.

culture

When Richard Cullen’s postcode was entered into Mosaic, it identified him as a member of Group B11: “Happy Families Making Good”. These are “older people on middle incomes... not high-fliers up career ladders of large conglomerates”. Happy Families are “likely to be interested in adverts for financial products”. “This is a culture” according to Mosaic, “that is keen to take advantage of easy credit”.

With this information, residents on Richard Cullen’s street were bombarded with offers for 0% interest credit cards with generous limits.

When Richard’s wife needed an operation, they had no health insurance and there was a long public waiting list. So they decided to pay for it privately with one of these cards.

When the 0% interest expired and penalties kicked in, Richard rolled over the debt to another card, and another, and another. By the time he died by suicide, the original £4,000 loan had escalated into £130,000. His wife had no idea.

He wasn’t buying lots of stuff with the money. There were no extravagant holidays or consumer goods. He just got caught up in a trap set by companies who knew too much about him. All they needed was his postcode, and they knew how to get him.

We’ve already had to accept that we’ve no privacy online. Our mobile phones track our location throughout the day. With Google Earth and Street View, you can “drive” down my road on your computer and check out my house.

Convenient for the burglars. And corporate burglars will use postcodes to attack my economic vulnerabilities. Billy Hawkes can see the threat. Is there no one else?

Online Editors

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