Data abusers need to fear more than court of public opinion

At the unveiling of the Information Commissioner’s Office’s annual report last week, the information commissioner Christopher Graham predicted the next 12 months will be when brands “realise the commercial imperative of properly handling customer data”.

Russell Parsons

In the wake of increasing levels of disquiet over SPAM texts and nuisance calls and the creeping fear people have that brands are playing fast and loose with their personal information, these are wise words.

Public instances, and reporting of data concerns, leaks and use has never been greater. Brands know the value of the data they have at their disposal with many using its potential as a revenue generator. They also know how privacy can be a positioning tool, witness Microsoft’s recent data privacy-themed ad campaign.

Data and its use has never had the same degree of exposure. There has also never been the sheer volume of it to be used and misused. Consumers are, in turn, wary. A recent ICO study found that 97 per cent of people were concerned that organisations would pass or sell-on their personal details.

As much as brands need to fear the court of public opinion, however, they need to fear the wrath of the regulator and understand the consequences of inaction. For this to happen, there needs to be a significant uplift in the help the ICO receives from the direct marketing community and Government.

Graham continued in his speech: “…..Consumers expect organisations to handle their personal data in a proper way, and in a legal way. Businesses that don’t meet that basic requirement are going to quickly find themselves losing customers.”

They should also expect to find themselves incurring the wrath of the ICO and the law. The body has had some high profile successes in dealing with nuisance calls and spam texters of late, including fining two firms featured in the BBC3 show The Call Centre but more needs to be done.

It cannot, however, act alone. Its work needs to be better co-ordinated with and better supported by the Ministry of Justice. New laws and a Government-backed commitment are essential if the battle to allay the public’s fears as well as stamp out nefarious use of data is to be won.

The public is demanding but the regulators need to have the teeth to be as demanding.

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