Where should companies draw the line in collecting information about us in their efforts to sell things? For example, should they catalog medical ailments or physical attributes such as obesity? What about religion, race, or sexual orientation?
We live in interesting times because there are no clear guidelines, and laws only limit collection of a few narrow areas of personal data. Marketers must often set the boundaries themselves, yet doing so could lessen their potential business.
Companies often seek to induce customers to volunteer their own information. For example, Publishers Clearing House hosts sweepstakes to win prizes such as $7,000 a week for life and online surveys to earn rewards such as gift cards. For pharmacy offers they may ask if someone has high blood pressure, smokes, suffers from sleep disorder or diabetes. They use the data to sell magazines and other products.
personally don’t think there is anything taboo if you explicitly explain why you are collecting the data,” Mike Zane, senior director of online marketing, told me when I met him last year. “But I wouldn’t ask for someone’s Social Security number nor do we ask for ailments.”
Another publisher, Rodale Inc. tells its nearly five million active subscribers to magazines such asMen’s Health and Prevention, that they may make personally identifiable information “available to trusted third parties” for marketing purposes. Rodale sells lists of people interested in sports and the outdoors and can also provide ethnicity, religion and medical ailments such as allergies, arthritis and diabetes.
I thought it would be interesting to reach out to some of Rodale’s subscribers to ask them what they thought of appearing on such marketing lists. Rodale decline to allow any such survey.
Perhaps they worry that many people do object to the collection of sensitive data. Privacy experts warn that little details, combined with other information, could end up disadvantaging certain people. Sexual orientation is another category a lot of marketers — but not all — avoid, as described in this recent article.
Freudian psychoanalyst Deborah Peel is so concerned about the growing spread of personal medical information that she founded a group seeking to increase public awareness of the issue. “My big concern, the reason I started Patient Privacy Rights, is because I know that with all this data out there it’s going to be the greatest source of job discrimination we’ve ever seen in this country and it’s going to start very early with your kid,” she says.
Some marketers share such concerns. For example, MK Marsden, senior vice president at data broker Epsilon, says marketers should not compile details about health ailments. People should seek out companies, and not the reverse, when they need certain sensitive information.
“Let’s say cancer, for example. Is there some value to people understanding and having access to relevant research and new drugs when they are out searching for that stuff? Yeah,” she said. “But I think that’s where it’s got to be, like you as a pharmaceutical company or you as the cancer center have to be there when they touch you. You don’t push at them.”
“When we’ve declared and we are explicit and we’ve asked for relevant messages of things like that then it is appropriate to push. I think it’s a delicate dance that we are learning the lines every single day.”
Data brokers and companies collecting personal data say they should not be regulated by the government but should develop industry best practices, even if some in their industry go over the line.
“In any community there will always be some percentage of people who don’t have positive intent. We as an industry need to decide what we are going to do about those people,” said Rick Erwin, president of data broker Experian ’s data and analytics division. “The right solution is not to deprive all the constituents of all the things that they were using with positive intent and properly because of a minority.”
Adds Gary Laben, CEO of data broker KBM Group: “Data should never be used to disadvantage someone.”
Terry Jones, the founder and former CEO of travel site Travelocity.com, worries however that the drive to collect ever more personal data will lead to excesses. “We have lots of parts of society where technology gets way ahead of the societal norm and some places I think is inappropriate,” he said.