Rights and wrongs of data collection

The Information Commissioner’s Office campaign, which seeks to highlight public ignorance over the way their personal data is used, has been panned by direct marketers. Was its approach too heavy handed?

As requests for personal data become more and more prevalent, protecting the consumer and the details collected from them is coming under close scrutiny.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – formerly the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner – is charged not only with making sure that companies comply with the rules under the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998, but that consumers are aware of their rights.

But the latest campaign from the ICO, warning the public about giving out personal information, has infuriated members of the direct marketing industry and has led to calls for the campaign to be dropped.

The industry is concerned about the heavy-handed approach that the ICO has taken with the campaign, accusing it of scaremongering and preying on the public’s fears. Many of them claim that the ICO’s job is merely to inform people of their protection rights.

The campaign, created by BDH/TBWA, was run on the London Underground, beer mats and taxi receipts, as well as having two 60-second executions on the radio . But it is its strapline: “Think before you give away personal details unnecessarily. You never know where they’ll end up,” that has the direct marketing industry up in arms.

Direct Marketing Association (DMA) director of compliance operations Tessa Kelly believes the ads – that have been tested in London over the past two weeks and are likely to be rolled out nationally – should be altered.

She says: “They [the ads] should be changed to be less alarmist and should inform people about the protection they already have. The campaign almost implies that the DPA is not working.”

The DMA was not consulted over the ads, but the ICO defends its right to work independently on this issue, saying it is a public organisation and therefore is not obliged to seek DMA approval.

ICO marketing director Helen Corkery says: “The ICO did advise the DMA that it was going to create the campaign. The ICO is happy to discuss the issue with the DMA, but it must be seen to be independent.”

Corkery also defends the harshness of the campaign. She says: “This campaign is about empowering the public. They have rights on personal information and they should be taking control, but in order to plant that seed the campaign needs to be tough. The ICO is not trying to stop people from giving information.”

The latest ads are a step beyond the ICO’s television campaign last year, which urged members of the public to contact the organisation if they were worried about the use of personal data or needed more information about the DPA 1998.

While the direct marketing industry claims to agree with the ICO about the principles of informing the public of their rights under the data protection act, it is concerned that this particular campaign will only succeed in fuelling consumers’ fears about what happens to the information they give.

The DMA itself plans to expand on the consumers’ rights issue in the next execution of its generic campaign in November. It will focus on the use of e-mail and, while alluding to the benefits of direct marketing, the ads will also tell people how they are protected and what they can do if they wish to complain.

The public’s awareness of how they are protected under the DPA 1998, as well as the options they have to opt out of mailing lists, has left the industry divided. Some believe the UK is one of the most media-savvy consumer societies in the world, while others argue that many people are still naive about what happens to the data they give out.

The DPA 1998, which all businesses must comply with by October 24, introduces the consumer’s right to stop direct mailings for the first time in the UK. The act replaces the 1984 act and brings it in line with European directives. Companies were given three years to bring data bases and collection methods up to date, while also ensuring the data held was immediately relevant to the organisation’s business needs.

Chris Cunnane, a partner at Leonardo, the direct marketing arm of Leo Burnett, says the debate over the ICO campaign is nothing but “a storm in a teacup”.

He says: “People do lack the knowledge about what happens to their information. As an industry we are not good at telling people what we are doing with their details and where it goes to.”

Although Cunnane does agree the campaign is “a little over the top” he believes that, instead of complaining, the direct marketing industry should use the opportunity to inform consumers about how data is used and where it goes.

Direct marketing agencies have been self-regulatory since the DMA introduced a code of practice in 1992 and most believe this, along with the Data Protection Act, is enough to protect consumers against unscrupulous use of information.

Stephen Callender, managing director of direct marketing agency Black Cat, believes that the future of the direct marketing industry lies in the ever-growing permission-marketing field. Opt-ins are now becoming the norm rather than the usual opt-out boxes, which consumers are asked to tick if they do not wish to receive mailings from third parties.

He believes legislation will eventually be introduced to ensure that all direct marketing material carry opt-in boxes, a move that would put the control in the hands of the consumer.

While such legislation is still only a possibility, the direct marketing industry needs to ensure it does all it can to reassure consumers that the personal details they provide are not passed on to third-party organisations without their permission.

However strongly the direct marketing industry feels about the ICO campaign, it is unlikely to sabotage its own prospects by upsetting the very people it relies on for its main source of information – consumers.

It may be tempting to go all out in combating the so-called “scare-mongering” claims in the IOC ads but, eventually, what the consumer needs is a clear, uniform message about their rights from all parties involved.

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