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Bob Evans
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Business Technology: Let Common Sense Guide Privacy Rules

Companies must decide how to balance the need to protect customers and the need to protect their customers' privacy rights.

Is your company devoting enough time, energy, and executive-level advocacy to issues relating to privacy? The ramifications, repercussions, rationale, and reasonableness of your company's policies toward consumer data? Do legitimate situations ever arise that call for information about your customers to be shared with law-enforcement agencies, the federal government, or--imagine this--even your customers themselves?

Are you prepared enough to address some of the most bizarre, logic-twisting scenarios you can imagine? Are you and your colleagues and your partners fully aware of the positions taken by the extreme ends of the thinking on the privacy spectrum so that you can be prepared to handle the extreme outcries they're sure to raise should you do something that you might think is right but that they feel is wrong?


The World Trade Center Transit Hub ... will serve the existing PATH train, which connects commuters to New Jersey, as well as several subway lines that run through the site. It will also accommodate yet-to-be-determined rail links to New York airports. ... The Port Authority says the station will be completed in 2009. That would be exactly 100 years after the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad first brought commuter and freight service to the site that eventually became the World Trade Center.

-- The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 23

If you think I'm hyperventilating, look at this item from an Associated Press story published Jan. 22 about the dilemma faced by supermarkets whose data-collection efforts enabled them to identify which of their customers had purchased meat that might have been spoiled--certainly an area of major interest in these days of mad-cow concerns. "'Sure, it would be useful to have someone contact me if I bought something tainted,' Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, said from Boston. 'But at what cost? A total food-supply surveillance network?'" (See "Mad Cow: Privacy Vs. Protection".)

For the paranoid, here's a side note to trial-lawyer industry: Search casebooks and databases for precedents re: liability of suppliers that had information that COULD HAVE protected consumers but instead decided to sit on their hands. Clear evidence of callous indifference, malicious passivity, reckless disregard for welfare of others, intent to do indirect harm, etc., etc. Particularly attractive is size of potential aggrieved universe: 250,000,000 Americans who buy food from supermarkets. Expansion of litigation globally to be welcomed by the European Union ...

More from the AP story: "During the recent mad-cow beef recall, one supermarket chain used its 'preferred customer' discount cards to identify and warn shoppers who had bought the suspect meat. In fact, many supermarket chains could do the same thing, but they don't, largely for fear of being accused of violating customers' privacy." The story then goes on to offer this explanation from one chain that had such information but did nothing out of fear of consumer-privacy backlashes: "'One of our primary objectives is to protect our customers' privacy, so we don't want to jeopardize that,' said Albertsons spokeswoman Karianne Cole in Boise, Idaho. Still, she said, the mad-cow recall will probably prompt the chain to take another look at the idea."

How in the name of common sense did we ever get to this point? How did otherwise-rational businesses let the screechings of some self-appointed baby sitter like the supermarket-conspiracy theorist or other knee-jerk, on-the-edge-of-the-fringe (hello, Electronic Freedom Foundation) gain such influence over not just their privacy policies but also their sense of right and wrong? But take heart: The story notes that Wegmans, a 66-store regional grocery chain, "has been using its 'Shoppers Club' cards to alert customers to recalls for years, sending out postcards about products" that could lead to severe allergic reactions (not to mention food poisoning and other nontrivial results).

So as you sit through those meetings to determine your company's privacy policies, think carefully about what type of philosophy will guide you: Wegmans, or the belief that such warnings will lead inevitably to "a total food-supply surveillance network"?

Bob Evans,
Editor in Chief

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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