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Customer Privacy: A Delicate Balance

A few weeks ago, I received a wedding invitation--well, more like a wedding notice--from a couple seeking donations for their honeymoon in lieu of gifts. The letter said I'd be receiving the actual invitation in a few days. Never mind what Miss Manne
A few weeks ago, I received a wedding invitation--well, more like a wedding notice--from a couple seeking donations for their honeymoon in lieu of gifts. The letter said I'd be receiving the actual invitation in a few days. Never mind what Miss Manners would say--the strange thing was I had no idea who the couple was. I reached into the deep recesses of my brain to try to put the names with faces. I checked high school and college yearbooks. I asked friends and family members. Nothing. It's true I sometimes forget where I've put my keys, but I don't usually forget people--certainly not ones who would invite me to such a special event. It's now clear that someone I don't know got my name (and probably hundreds of others) from an alumni directory or some other list available online and sent the letters. Doubtless they were banking on the fact that some people would be too embarrassed to admit they can't remember a person and would send an obligatory check. While there was no loss to me--I didn't send any money--I feel as though my privacy was invaded.

Just last week, I got one of those annoying E-mails from a firm hawking Internet spying services. For a fee, it claimed to provide names and addresses by matching license-plate numbers, unlisted phone numbers, criminal records, and more. Much of this information is probably drawn from public databases, but what this provider claims to offer goes beyond a respect for privacy. For example, it will find "dirty secrets" (whatever that means) about your neighbors.

When it comes to privacy, it's often a question of balance. On one hand, the more companies know about their customers, the better they can serve them. I like that my bank knows me well enough to make investment suggestions, that a particular online toy site reminds me of important birthdays and suggests age-appropriate gifts, that old friends can look me up in an alumni directory. I choose to give these businesses certain data, and, while my level of control is admittedly limited, I've got to trust them to use it appropriately.

In this week's special issue, you'll find out why a good privacy policy doesn't mean never gathering, using, or sharing information, but rather how to strike the right balance to provide the personalized attention customers crave. You'll find out how regulatory restrictions come into play and what tools you can use to comply with privacy policies. Then there's the issue of employee monitoring--when and why it's appropriate.

How is your company finding the right balance?

STEPHANIE STAHL
Editor
[email protected]


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

To find out more about Stephanie Stahl, please visit her page on the Listening Post.