Saturday, September 4, 2010

MEDIAPOST: The Inconvenient Truth… About Consumer Privacy

The last few weeks have seen a lot of press surrounding the issues of privacy and consumer safety. It’s a relatively cyclical discussion that seems to be raised every 2-3 years, but its gaining steam now that the government is getting more involved. I’m not one to talk politics nor am I one to sit and here and tell you that everything is acceptable in regards to Internet standards for consumer privacy, but I do want to put some of this discussion in perspective.

The last thing anyone should ever do is defend a policy by pointing fingers at someone else and saying, “but they’re worse”, however in this case I think it’s time to do a little finger pointing. My wife was recently sharing with me some of the “fine print” on the automotive financing bill we get monthly. We own an American car, financed by an American car company so you would assume their privacy policy is in line with simple standards for American consumer privacy. If that is the case, then some of these facts may be somewhat shocking. Here are a few of the highlights, taken word for word, from that recent bill…

“Financial companies choose how they share your personal information. Federal law gives consumers the right to limit some not all sharing.”

“The types of personal information we collect and share depend on the product or service you have with us. This information can include: Social Security number and income, payment history and purchase history, credit history and assets”.

“Reasons we share your personal information – for our everyday business purposes, for our marketing purposes, for joint marketing with other companies, for our affiliates’ everyday business purposes, for our affiliates to market to you. Can you limit this sharing? No.”

Those statements are rather broad in my opinion. The sharing of my Social Security number, name and personal financial history with an affiliate for their everyday business purposes, regardless of my permission, opens a doorway for my personal information to be released outside of acceptable terms. Unfortunately, I have no control over this and if their affiliates’ do not have a similar policy in place then all of a sudden my information is available. And no mention is given as to the method for sharing this data, which is inevitably done through digital means. Just this year I’ve had my mail stolen twice, and my credit card number changed four times because of fraudulent charges made to it. In two of those cases, the credit card company admitted they had a security breach. If that is the case, then whom do you trust?

The general issue with Internet privacy, and the use of cookies to collect information, is that some groups consider this usage of data to be an invasion of privacy, but the fact is that most (and I agree that we are talking about most) Internet companies are gathering non-PII (personally identifiable information). They are gathering anonymous data on behavior that enables ad targeting and the delivery of tailored content. These companies are not gathering and sharing your Social Security number, income, payment history, credit history, assets or your name and address. If consumers are up in arms regarding the usage of your general Internet data, why aren’t they up in arms regarding the use of your PII by traditional companies? What about your credit card company? What about the grocery store loyalty card you swipe to get a percentage off your purchases? What about those “anonymous” companies that buy and sell everything about you to the highest bidder, under supposed regulation of the government? Has anyone asked what their policies are?

There does need to be some regulation regarding the fringe companies that are using malware to gather and share personally identifiable information but the majority of ethical, responsible companies need not be thrown out with the bathwater. Self-regulation on the part of the industry and a responsible plan for monitoring and purging irresponsible companies and tactics should be put in place to ensure that consumer’s rights are not being taken advantage of. Responsible Internet companies should be rewarded and recognized for taking into consideration the rights of the consumer, and the consumers should be made aware of all the ways their information is utilized by all manner of companies. Credit fraud and identity theft are not new crimes, and our industry should not be given all the blame for these issues arising.

Consumer privacy is indeed a big deal and an issue that requires attention, but I hope that the responsible parties address the issue on a grander scale and reward the companies that are acting in a responsible manner with the consumer in mind.

If you care about the issue, be sure to speak to your local congressman or congresswoman, address it in your blogs or just simply respond on the Spin Board!

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