Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Record Fine Illustrates the Vulnerability of Information

Have you ever entered personal information into an online account without reading the fine print? Of course you have; we all do it from time to time. What you may not know is that located in all that fine print may be a sentence that says something like, 'you agree that we can share your information with third parties whose offers we think might interest you.'

Such statements act as digital confirmation that you are giving permission for your personal information to be sold to others. The sale of personal information is a serious problem, as demonstrated by a record fine just announced by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) against a company accused of making tens of millions of nuisance calls.

According to an ICO press release dated 9 March 2017, a Hampshire company trading as Media Tactics was found to have made 22 million nuisance calls using phone numbers purchased from other online entities that had collected the information. The company made nuisance calls covering a broad range of topics from debt management to personal injury claims.

"These 22 million pre-recorded calls will have left many people feeling frustrated," said the ICO's Steve Eckersley. "But some people found them alarming and distressing – we heard from one complainant who found the calls depressing and another who was too frightened to answer any calls at all."

According to the law, companies like Media Tactics can only place calls to people who have given their consent. Assuming their claims of purchasing phone numbers from other entities who obtained such consent is true, we have a much larger problem here than just one company making nuisance phone calls. We have the greater issue of online entities selling personal information without discriminating.

When That Fine Line Is Crossed

The idea of selling personal information is nothing new, nor is it confined to the digital arena. Companies have been selling names, addresses and phone numbers since long before the internet age. But it seems in recent years we have crossed that fine line for which there appears to be no turning back.

Internet users have a right to expect privacy when they enter their personal information for the purposes of making a purchase, opening an online account or other such activities. Just because a company inserts a consent disclosure in the fine print does not absolve them from being guilty of crossing the line. Such entities may not be guilty of any criminal offence, but there is the ethical side of things to be concerned about.

The average consumer is left having to make a choice of not entering personal information into online accounts or doing so and hoping for the best. Remember, this is not a matter of security. Online entities voluntarily chose to sell information to Media Tactics, information that was collected legally and with alleged consent.

For the record, the ICO's fine against Media Tactics was £270,000. Hopefully, it will serve as a deterrent to other companies engaging in the same kinds of ethically-challenged tactics.