Reading the motoring section of the Sunday Times on the weekend, I found the following extraordinary letter to the editor from a Maurice Hyman of London
We recently booked a Volkswagen Golf hire car for a four-day break in Norfolk and arrived at the depot in London to pick it up, expecting to sign the papers and leave on our holiday.
However, the supervisor asked that we wait a moment for a few formalities.
Suddenly, and without asking, he pointed a camera at us, linked to a computer, explaining that the picture would be transferred to the database at head office, making future dealings easier. We were then required to give our fingerprints for appending to the agreement.
He explained that because there was so much identity theft these days insurance companies were insisting on these procedures.
But according to the new laws it is merely necessary to verify that the name and address are genuine — no mention is made of photographs and fingerprinting. I had difficulty believing I was in Britain!
There are a couple of issues here. The first is simply that I find these procedures to be unbelievably heavy handed. In my life, nobody has ever needed to take my fingerprints. I like it that way. I believe that rental car companies do have the right to impose conditions like this on their customers. However, if they do, I also have the right to rent my car from another company, or to not rent a car at all. Therefore, if I book a car or pay in advance, then I must be informed in advance of any such conditions. Springing them on me at the last minute when cancelling the booking and going to another car company has been made difficult and when I haven’t been informed in advance is wrong. Taking someone’s photograph for this kind of purpose without clearly informing them and giving them a chance to object is also wrong. (Of course the reason they present it to you at the last moment is to increase the hassle to you of objecting. If they mentioned it up front, they would lose business).
Finally, the strategy of blaming somebody else (often the government, but here the insurance companies) for having to take away people’s liberties seems to be becoming more and more common. It very likely is the policy of the rental company, but saying “It is all the fault of the insurance company” is a way of shifting the blame and avoiding responsibility. Probably if you ask the insurance company they will blame the car rental agency.
Presumably, if the car goes missing the rental company will share this information with the police. Even if it doesn’t, one can see lots of ways in which your fingerprints could end up in all sorts of databases. And once such databases exist, it is hard to imagine the police not ending up with access to them.
The final point is a positive one. Being photographed without being asked first and being asked to give fingerprints is something that annoys people like Maurice Hyman, sufficiently to cause him write a letter to the Sunday Times about it. (I don’t know whether he agreed to be fingerprinted. He didn’t say). Whatever may be said for that newspaper, its editors care sufficiently about such things to print the letter. My Hyman’s words were that it made him feel like he was not in Britain. Traditionally, the British people have had more civil liberties than people in many other countries, and they are proud of this and they think Britain is a better country because of this. They notice and are bothered when people try to take them away. If the government fails to take note of this, it will likely learn it the hard way.