who owns your mother's maiden name?

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Identity Surely your mother's maiden name belongs (ultimately) to your mother.  But perhaps it's not her name any more.  (It identifies a person who no longer exists - your mother when she was a girl.)
Trust Lots of companies use "mother's maiden name" as a kind of password - which is pretty stupid really, as it's dead easy to find out.  (Even if you try to be clever, and give the bank your grandmother's or greatgrandmother's maiden name instead, it's not very secure.)
Every bank that stores my mother's maiden name thinks it "owns" (and must "protect") this data item - and so it gets replicated all around the internet.
Status What if your mother still uses her maiden name?  What if you have the same surname that your mother had when she was a girl?  Does this tell us something about you?
Privacy Is your mother's maiden name (a) private information or (b) public knowledge?

Character and Status

Can we deduce anything from the fact that a woman has the same surname as her parents, or that a person has the same surname as the mother's parents?

Some people might assume that the mother was unmarried - perhaps a single parent.  They might even jump to conclusions about a person's socio-economic status or character.  But these conclusions may be wholly false, grossly unfair, or just completely irrelevant - bad logic as well as bad ethics.

It's easy to pick holes in the logic.  For example, it's perfectly possible for a woman to marry a man with the same surname.  I have two friends who actually did this - one called Smith and one called Patel.  So the married name is identical to the maiden name.  Furthermore, a proportion of divorced women revert to their maiden names, while others retain their ex-husband's names.

These elements of personal history are significant aspects of a woman's identity - and also affect the identity of her children.  But surname information is an unreliable indicator of these identity - and simplistic judgements may be grossly unfair.  And there are also important privacy implications.

However, for many purposes, what matters to the "average" business is the "average" customer.  This representation is also a form of  identity (template) - any customer or employee who doesn't fit the template may be subject to (possibly unfair) discrimination.  If a finance company gives you a poor credit rating because of some coincidence of surname - how will you find out, and to whom can you complain?


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This page last updated on November 11th, 2003
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