Gov’t exacerbates privacy issue

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.Strategy also...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

Strategy also invites other news items or column submissions for this section. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor, (416) 408-2300.

Get set for a huge debate on the issue of privacy of information. Get set to be a part of it.

At issue, the right of the various levels of government to sell information that they have on their databases, without permission. A related theme addresses databases held by commercial interests.

Globe piece

This debate was framed by The Globe and Mail in its recent six-part series by staff reporters Mary Gooderham and Alana Mitchell, which outlined the extent to which cash-strapped governments are selling information that they receive from their constituents in the process of ‘governing.’

The writers profiled StatsCan as the profit-oriented business model to which other (cash-hungry) federal government departments aspire, defined ‘dataveillance’ as a new civil rights issue, and touched on the use of databases by businesses.

Less secure

They described how Canadians feel less secure about their privacy than they did just 10 years ago, and proclaim that in today’s information age, there is ‘nowhere to hide.’

This was not just filler material, either: four of the six articles received front page exposure.

While the discussion might begin with the government’s use of its data as a profit centre, it will most certainly expand to include the private sector. (Government spin doctors will ensure this.)

Not the same

One critically important point is that government databases and private sector databases are not the same.

The information contained in government-held databases is generally much more sensitive than their privately owned counterparts, and, hence, the former is potentially more valuable, and potentially destructive, if not used in a prudent manner.

As constituents of any particular province, and as citizens of Canada, we provide information to many levels of government according to the rules of the day.

Mandatory information

There are mandatory information requirements in order to obtain a driver’s licence, file income tax, buy a house or sell a car.

This compares with the optional information requested by commercial interests to validate the warranty on a toaster or join a frequent flyer program.

The question is: should information contained in a database, whether government or privately owned, be made available to others without permission. The short answer is ‘no.’

During the Globe’s series, listeners of Toronto radio station cfrb made their feelings known on one aspect of data sales through a phone-in poll: the overwhelming majority (83.9%) felt that the Ontario government should ‘stop selling driver’s licence data to protect [the listeners'] privacy.’

(Last year, the province of Ontario earned $14.5 million from the practice.)

Policy

Governments at all levels need to develop a policy on the sale of information in their databases that is not driven by their need for revenue. Some information should be declared permanently confidential, and the sale of such information would not be permitted under any circumstances.

As the representative of the direct marketing industry in Canada, the Canadian Direct Marketing Association has already developed a privacy code which becomes effective on Jan. 1.

The code ensures that consumers have ‘a meaningful opportunity to decline to have their name or other information used for any further marketing purposes by a third party.’

In addition, the cdma’s privacy code endorses the right of the consumer to know the source of his/her name in any direct marketing program, to have any erroneous information corrected, and to have certain information (such as medical, financial and credit data) held confidential.

Workable

Although the ‘negative option’ approach of the cdma privacy code is not the same as obtaining permission from the consumer, Scott McClennan, communications manager for the cdma, points out that it is workable, having been used successfully by the organization in its earlier do-not-call/do-not-mail programs.

Its longer-term success is contingent upon cdma members’ adherence to the code, and to publicity efforts by the association to make consumers aware that a procedure exists to have their privacy protected, should they wish, in the private sector.

Look to private sector

As for the mandarins in government, who see dollars in databases, they would be wiser to adopt, as their minimum standard, the approach taken by the private sector in the marketing of information about their ‘customers’ to third parties.

David Foley Associates specializes in design implementation and evaluation of database marketing programs. Please direct comments and questions to David Foley, David Foley Associates, 48 Woodman’s Chart, Unionville, Ont. L3R 6K7, or call or fax (416) 940-8784.