Commentary

Who Has Your Number?

In another proud moment for the direct mail industry, The New York Times this week expended 2,858 words on how infoUSA sold personal information to criminals who used the data to swindle senior citizens.

A company official deftly defended selling lists to those classified as Elderly Opportunity Seekers (3.3 million older people "looking for ways to make money"), Suffering Seniors (4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer's disease) and Oldies but Goodies (500,000 gamblers over 55 years old described as: "These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change") by saying "My people aren't investigators, they're marketers, and it's unfair to expect them to know everything about who is buying from us and every database that is listed on our Web site."

"Telemarketing fraud, once limited to small-time thieves, has become a global criminal enterprise preying upon millions of elderly and other Americans every year, authorities say. Vast databases of names and personal information, sold to thieves by large publicly traded companies, have put almost anyone within reach of fraudulent telemarketers," reported the Times.

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This not only further blackens the eye of the DM industry, already lowly regarded by consumers as ranking somewhere between repo men and Chinese toothpaste and pet food makers, it give consumers one more reason to fear the word "data."

Ever since processors shrank from the size of living room tables to periods at the end of this sentence, we have been in the data age. Everything that can be publicly known about you is already in a database somewhere. Sometimes containers of that data fall off the back of trucks, other times it is hacked or left on the hard drive of a forgotten or misplaced laptop, but more often is sold by companies like infoUSA--usually to legitimate marketers, but occasionally to crooks. The Perfect Nightmare scenario is that all this data gets collected in one place and is used by, say, insurance companies to deny coverage, or by your elected officials to herd people with certain traits into concentration camps--despite a track record of governmental ineptitude in everything from hurricane relief to nation-building that almost guarantees this can't ever happen.

The fact that all of this data collection is facilitated more efficiently by microchips gives people the false impression that the data about them is only being assembled while they are online. The plain fact is that more data is being collected about you offline than is ever collected while you are surfing the Web. Every time you use a credit card your purchases can be tied to your personal data. Right now, your cable company--along with your grocery store and newspaper--know more about you than virtually every Web publisher (unless you have voluntarily registered and given some PI the information).

I am the last guy in the land to defend a company like infoUSA, but they collected the data legally and sold it legally. That they chose to label its data sets in ways that essentially invited misuse is something for which its principals should be held accountable. But in the end, it was the buyers who misused it. In the same sense, most online data is being collected (and used) responsibly by companies who not only acknowledge the economic liability of misusing it, they provide means for users to opt out of their data collection processes. The banks don't ask you first if they can sell your mortgage information, and your print subscriptions or catalogues don't ask you if it is okay for them to sell your name and address to other companies. But you can, for the most part, opt out of online data collection.

I was amused by the MediaPost columnist who was "creeped out" because he saw a behaviorally targeting ad that was spot-on (a hotel in a city that he was planning to visit). Surely he could see the benefit of being served an ad that was relevant to him versus a pitch for a loan he isn't in the market for? And that is the point of most online data collection--to provide a better user experience.

The future of all advertising is in who owns the data (see Dave Morgan's Spin column from yesterday for more on this topic). Every company that collects and uses data should come under the closest scrutiny to make certain that it protects sensitive data and doesn't use (or sell) it inappropriately. The good guys can stand the scrutiny. The bad guys should be drawn and quartered.



The story you have just read is an attempt to blend fact and fiction in a manner that provokes thought, and on a good day, merriment. It would be ill-advised to take any of it literally. Take it, rather, with the same humor with which it is intended. Cut and paste or link to it at your own peril.
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