Scary Technology #3 - Why companies can't be trusted with our data

Can you or an employer be trusted with your most personal data? Are better laws and ethical standards needed to guide the development and use of new technologies?
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

Yes, I’m pretty torqued about the flippant, wrong and error-prone ways companies play fast and loose with our personal data, our privacy and our identities.

Let’s face it – these companies are poor, very poor stewards of our information. I’ve had my identity hacked twice at my old college alma mater. That hallowed institution kept former student information online decades after I attended it and, worse, stored it via social security number. They didn’t fix the problem after the first breach. No, it took two breaches to get sort of serious about it.

I don’t trust businesses to protect our data. One retailer my family frequented didn’t protect the credit card data transmitted in its retail stores. That gaffe caused us to replace a lot of credit cards. Firms make a lot of mistakes regarding our information. First, they assume it is their data. Legally, that might be right but not if it gets misused, hacked, etc. At that point, they realize it is our information and it is now a liability of the company. Where businesses get tripped up is that they think this information is just data when to us it our identity, our private information and something very valuable to us.

The second mistake businesses make regarding our information is to assume that it is constant. It isn’t and their records are often out of date.

The third mistake businesses make is to assume that their information is correct. Man, is that one wrong, wrong, wrong. I know lots of people who tell marketers different birth dates than their real one. They fib about their income. They do this for many reasons but I do it because I don’t want this data misused by others to commit identity theft. No one really should know my mother's maiden name or the street I grew up on.

Businesses collect more information than they need, don’t protect the data we give them and then don’t even use the information we willingly give them. How many new product warranty cards have you filled out in your life? Why in the world does a refrigerator manufacturer need to know what hobbies you have or whether you like casino gaming? These firms ask for this information to sell to others. They don’t need it to administer warranties or provide service. However, in all of the dozen or so major appliances I’ve bought the last three decades, I’ve never heard from any of these appliance firms. They don’t use the information we give them except to violate our privacy and sell our information to others.

No, I don’t believe businesses take our privacy, data and identities seriously as they don’t see customers as assets. Look at their balance sheets. Customers aren’t there. No, we’re a cost to them and our costs are buried in their call center and support line items in the income statement. To most firms, customers are something to have as little contact as possible post-sale. Customers are though a rich source of data to be sold, re-sold and sold again. Customers, to too many firms, are faceless entities you do things to (not with).

I get a lot of marketing magazines. In the back of some of them are advertisements from firms hawking mailing lists. Yes, virtually any magazine you subscribe to is selling your information to list providers. Even more galling, magazines you pay for are doing this to you. But, I have real problems with manufacturers or retailers selling very personal information to others. Honestly, just because you ordered some incontinence products via a web-merchant doesn’t mean you want your mail box filled with offers from other retailers of similar products or services.

I don’t want a GPS enabled cell phone as it’s no one’s business where I am. I don’t want to be bombarded with sales pitches from nearby merchants. I don’t want anyone knowing when I’m out of town as I don’t want thieves hitting my home. You see, my location is my business (not someone else’s).

New technologies are presenting us opportunities to track our children, our spouses and our friends. But should we? While some applications of this technology make sense (e.g., using GPS to find a lost Alzheimers sufferer), the same technology can be used to invade the privacy of others. The issue here is that technologists lack a code of ethics for the amazing things they create (see prior post) and, equally bad, people and companies misuse these new technologies. We need new ethical standards and maybe new laws to better protect the personal liberties we should have in a free country.

I think we all should pour it on when it comes to privacy. Call, write, phone, pester, etc. every political candidate you know. I’ve written a couple of letters to our state attorney general – have you?

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