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Hang Ups

In The Web (currently showing at a cinema near you) the unsuspecting Sandra Bullock falls victim to a fiendish hacker. He is able to plunge her into a Kafkaesque nightmare merely by tampering with her personal details stored on various computers. It only takes a few well-aimed clicks of the mouse, and some deft work with the delete key, for her bank to "forget" she exists and the police to have her logged as a dangerous criminal.

Here is one thriller, then, that offers youngsters something more to chew over than popcorn and offers their teachers an excellent excuse to discuss one of the most disturbing aspects of the "information revolution". Even if there aren't battalions of Hollywood villains out to tamper with your personal files, there's most certainly a likelihood that at some time or other the people who routinely input information about you will make a mistake.

Pupils can discover for themselves just how easy this is to do by using the software that comes as part of Data Watch, an excellent teaching pack issued by the Data Protection Registrar. It contains the data on 50 or so fictitious people, covering everything from their income to drinking habits.

Pupils can play at direct marketing by using the search tools to single out potential customers for particular products. But they can also have fun doctoring the data. Zap a zero off someone's salary, and type a "Y" into the field labelled "criminal record?" and see how that affects his credit rating.

In the real world, it wouldn't be so bad if a mistake were confined to a single database. But it rarely is. The trade in personal information in the UK is now a Pounds 1 billion industry. Data true and false is constantly bought and hired, and the original mistake, like a virus, spreads inexorably from one computer to the next.

The Data Protection Agency has investigated dozens of cases. There's the driver who was refused a Hackney carriage licence because his file contained details of a criminal record someone else's. And the customer at a department store who was refused credit because the computer had his house number confused with that of a convicted criminal who happened to live in the same street.

At least these people had the nous to guess there was something amiss. The rest of us go through life, blithely unaware of the lies that computers might be telling about us behind our backs. This is why it's so important teenagers are given the opportunity to use Data Watch.

The 30 (photocopiable) worksheets will teach them, for instance, that every time they fill in a coupon in a magazine, or answer impertinent questions in a survey, they are feeding the computer's insatiable appetite for more data. They'll also learn (and maybe teach their parents) that they can protect themselves from a deluge of junk mail by asking the Mailing Preference Service to delete their names from all commercial mailing lists.

Even more important, they will learn that they have the right to check the accuracy of the data stored on them. Any organisation that keeps computerised records is obliged by law not only to take adequate precautions to protect the information from falling into the wrong hands, but also to allow individuals to inspect and, if necessary, correct their records.

These requirements don't only apply to the junk mail merchants. Parents (or children over 16) can ask to see school records kept on computer, and the school must comply within 40 days. Pupils who have seen The Web are likely to be first in what ought to be a very long queue.

For free copies of Data Watch: Data Protection Registrar, Wycliffe House, Walter Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF (specify Acorn, Mac or PC). Mailing Preference Service, Freepost 22, London W1E 7EZ

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