Consumer Privacy under the Microscope

20 November 2009

Buffalo Sabres' Goalie Ryan Miller.  Bet he doesn't let much personal information get by him.

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Bet he doesn't let much sensitive personal information get by him.

Last week, a catalog of NHL gear arrived in my mailbox.  On the cover was a photo of a Buffalo Sabres jersey, customized with my last name, “Truskey,” embroidered on the back.  That’s interesting, I thought.  I’d never purchased anything from this catalog before.  How did they know I’m a Sabres fan?  The same thing happened at my local grocery store, when coupons showed up on the back of the receipt for items that I buy frequently.  That’s when I started to feel like someone was watching me…and it wasn’t the Geico stack of money.

More now than ever, much of our personal data is up for grabs by marketers willing to pay for it.  We have membership cards for grocery stores, convenience stores and department stores that track our purchases.  We have smart cards and EZ-Pass devices that record which subway turnstile we go through and when, and which exit we take on the Interstate.  Marketers are good at creating profiles of who we are – whether we like it or not.

A House hearing was held yesterday to explore this very topic.  It was a fascinating discussion. While companies like Wal-Mart (who was represented on the panel) take steps to ensure customers understand which privacy regulations are in place, other companies aren’t so straightforward.  A small business representative was also on the panel, and asked that any legislation enacted not be the same for all businesses; Wal-Mart doesn’t have to work to attract customers, but small business do, she argued, and they find this type of data collected on consumers to be very helpful in generating new customers.  And from a consumer perspective – some like targeted advertisements, some don’t.  The trick will be to find a solution that doesn’t restrict business growth, but protects consumers while not cutting off services they appreciate.

The conversation will continue in December when the Federal Trade Commission will hold a roundtable to discuss data-collection practices with representatives of the ad, media and technology industries and consumer groups.  As for me … I’m still deciding which number to get on the back of my jersey.

[The Chief Privacy Officer of Kantar Group, a WPP company and sister company of Hill & Knowlton, testified at the Hearing.]

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