Don't Cry Wolf Too Many Times

Privacy issues mounted on several fronts last week: The United States and the European Union won't meet today's deadline on safe harbor principles; financial institutions reacted to a privacy lawsuit filed against U.S. Bancorp; and privacy advocates cried foul at the DoubleClick-Abacus Direct merger.

Clearly, these are issues to be concerned with. Yes, the United States needs to comply with European leaders to conduct business overseas. Yes, it's serious when a bank is said to have released customers' private banking information to a telemarketing company for $4 million, which is why several other banks immediately issued statements clarifying how they handle customer data with third-party marketers. Congress is debating the sharing of information as well.

And, yes, it's serious when two companies want to merge their online and offline consumer databases, especially when one has information on 88 million households. Is this grounds to halt the merger? That's what privacy groups sought last week. “It's the most horrendous merger for privacy,” Junkbusters director Jason Catlett was quoted as saying. Funny, didn't he say something like that in February before Intel changed its Pentium III processor so it wouldn't automatically track identifying signatures? Intel backed down, but DoubleClick and Abacus have no reason to.

As these privacy groups keep crying wolf, their effectiveness as legitimate watchdogs will decline. “You know how many consumers have called us? Zero. You know how many privacy groups have called us? Zero,” Abacus founder Tony White told DM News two days after the acquisition was announced. It seems they only called the media — even before the two companies could say what they will do with the data. Both said privacy was a big part of their discussions and any marketing they do will target only those consumers who have chosen to receive promotions.

Shouldn't you be innocent till proven guilty?

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