Editorial: Is It Too Late?

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Privacy advocates like to talk about the lack of privacy. Unfortunately, marketers haven't always liked to talk about what they do with the information they collect. Enter lawmakers with sweeping legislative fixes that won't be pleasant. Those privacy policies sent out to comply with Gramm-Leach-Bliley this spring and summer did nothing to further the cause for business. The statements were confusing, and most people didn't even read them.

Meanwhile, if you're waiting for the Privacy Leadership Initiative to come up with a campaign that sets the tone, don't. Do it yourself. And the best way? Hit people where they live: their checkbooks. Tell Betty Customer why she can get a car loan in half an hour. Why the purchase her husband, Joe, is about to make is cheaper because of the sharing of information. Why this lets them get a mortgage loan at 7 percent instead of 9 percent. Let information be the weapon of choice, and you'll boost retention, improve customer loyalty and increase market share. This is what many marketers told Congress last week.

Peter J. Wallison put forth some sanity in The New York Times last week with the column "When Privacy Is a Credit Risk." Wallison, who was President Reagan's counsel in 1986-87, said getting explicit consent from customers before their financial information can be transferred to a third party sounds reasonable, "and it would certainly protect privacy, but at great costs to consumers." He goes on to explain the benefits of sharing data in dollars and cents and questions why lawmakers want to change the current system. "One answer may be that they think of privacy in terms of government snooping." That's not it. Financial institutions simply want to weed out the good credit risks from the bad ones.

Companies need to make it clear there are no secret data banks of personal information and they won't collect data for other purposes without the consumer's consent. Some legislation is fine, but it needs to address the problem. Cut off the flow of data, and consumers will come to realize why they never wanted that in the first place. But by then it will be too late.
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