Will There Be a ‘Snowden Effect’ on Marketing Data?

I didn’t even want to write this headline or blog post, given the fault-filled linkages some people make between marketing and something completely different from marketing. But it never seems to fail: Whenever some big news event captures the media’s attention, politicians’ attention surely follows. And when it has to do with consumer privacy, the results for the private sector—and use of marketing information in particular—are rarely favorable

I didn’t even want to write this headline or blog post, given the fault-filled linkages some people make between marketing and something completely different from marketing.

But it never seems to fail: Whenever some big news event captures the media’s attention, politicians’ attention surely follows. And when it has to do with consumer privacy, the results for the private sector—and use of marketing information in particular—are rarely favorable. This is true even when the responsible use of marketing data has NOTHING to do with the scenarios presented in the news.

U.S. legislative history is strewn with such evidence, linking (erroneously) marketing with some sensational occurrence other than marketing. Here are just three of them:

  • An actress is murdered in Los Angeles (1989). It turns out the murderer hired a private investigator to get her address from the state motor vehicle department, and then stalked and killed her. A bevy of state and federal anti-stalking laws are passed—but Congress passes an additional one, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (1994). Would you believe, state motor vehicle registration and license data is curtailed for marketing purposes (data that had been worth millions to the states, never mind losing the beneficial impact to automotive and insurance marketers and consumers), even though such data had nothing to do with the crime?
  • A child is kidnapped and killed, again in California (1993). A grieving father goes on a publicity rampage against presence of children in marketing databases—even though the horrible crime had nothing to with marketing, and even with state law enforcement officials testifying in public hearings following the crime that perpetrators of crimes against children most often stalk their victims physically (from an era prior to social media). Nonetheless, California and national media go after compilers of marketing data related to children. The stage is set later that decade for new privacy restrictions for children’s marketing data online.
  • Judge Robert Bork is nominated by President Reagan for the U.S. Supreme Court (1987). An enterprising reporter manages to publish a list of video titles rented by the nominee (all of them benign, by the way). A concerned Congress—no doubt thinking of its members’ own video rental history—passes the Video Privacy Protection Act (1988), shutting down marketing access to video titles from customer rentals/purchases.

And this summer, we have the National Security Administration revelations from Edward Snowden regarding public surveillance of U.S. citizens in the name of anti-terrorism. Now, we can only guess on what potential debilitating effects may be ahead for marketers, but you can bet some politicians or regulators are drumming beats for a response.

Privacy law in America should be about protecting individual liberty from abuse of information by the public sector—and leave the private sector alone, except in cases where there are demonstrable or probable harms from data misuse or errors. Such is the case with personal financial, credit and health data, for example, where the U.S. government wisely has taken a sector, pragmatic approach.

But Snowden’s government surveillance revelations could very well have a “chilling” effect on more broad marketing data collection and use, too. Politicians, in the name of protecting consumer privacy, may very well rush to curb data-driven marketing activity, rather than tackling the much-harder and real culprit, that is, spying on innocent Americans (and government acquiescence of such activity).

Concurrent to the NSA revelations, the Federal Trade Commission increasingly is vocal on “data brokers” and marketing activity—and trying to link data collection for marketing purposes to non-marketing purposes. Yet, it is dishonest, disingenuous and spurious to do so—and doing so fans fear and hypotheticals, instead of rational thought. There is no relationship between responsible data collection for marketing purposes—which only delivers benefits to the economy, and tax revenue, too—and data used for insurance and premiums, hiring purposes, and certainly the federal government’s activities to monitor internet and telecommunications in order to profile or detect would-be terrorists.

Marketers—for 40 years—have operated under a successful self-regulation code of notice, consumer choice, security and enforcement—and central to this is the use of marketing data for marketing purposes only. That’s as true online as offline. Where would we be without consumer trust in this process?

It may be very appropriate here to legislate what government may access—and how they may access—when it comes to personally identifiable information for surveillance or anti-terrorist purposes. But don’t even utter the word “marketing” in the same sentence. Let marketers continue with self-regulation: We offer consumers notice and opt-out, we focus strictly on marketing purposes only—and everyone benefits in the process.