Zero rating for fairness

It’s a long time since I took a flight, but when I used to do so, I too would have the experience, when purchasing items in airport shops, of being asked to produce my boarding pass and having it scanned by the retailer. I now know that the reason for this is, contrary to my assumptions, nothing to do with security, and everything to do with the retailer’s VAT pricing structure

I don’t particularly object to the practice itself, but what does concern me, from a privacy and data protection perspective, is the lack of information traditionally given to passengers about the reason for it, and what happens with the information gathered.

The third data protection principle, in Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) states, in relevant part, that personal data should be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed. Is the processing by retailers compliant with their obligations under this principle?When retailers scan boarding passes they will be at least potentially collecting (“processing”) passengers’ names, flight numbers and travel destination. The last is the purpose of the exercise: if the passenger is travelling outside the European Union the purchase is zero-rates for the purposes of VAT. But is it necessary therefore to collect all the boarding pass data? Well, HMRC guidance suggests that it is:

Information from the boarding cards or travel documents presented by entitled passengers should be retained by retailers as part of their export evidence.

This suggests that, in order to satisfy any HMRC inspector that zero-rated purchases have been made legitimately, proof of the details of the purchase will need to be retained and provided. 

If that is the case then there’s a good argument that retailers could satisfy the requirements of the third DPA principle. But there is a more fundamental requirement, in the first Schedule One principle, to process personal data fairly, and fairness will not be achieved unless

in the case of data obtained from the data subject, the data controller ensures so far as practicable that the data subject has, is provided with, or has made readily available to him… [inter alia]…the purpose or purposes for which the data are intended to be processed

And there we are back to the start of this post: I didn’t know what the purpose was of scanning my boarding pass, and it’s very clear from the recent media coverage of the issue that many, probably most, passengers didn’t or don’t realise. In my view this, coupled with the retention of the data for HMRC purposes, renders the processing unfair and unlawful. Whether the relevant data controller is the retailer, who does the act, or HMRC, who appear to require it, is another question (it’s probable that they are acting as joint data controllers) but I think the Information Commissioner’s Office should take a look.

(Thanks to Rich Greenhill for pointing out the HMRC guidance).

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under Data Protection, Information Commissioner, privacy notice

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