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Risk

10/17/2007
03:37 PM
Tom Smith
Tom Smith
Commentary
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Personal Data Protection Legislation: Readers Have Their Say

Reader comments on my post about the California governor's veto of a bill that would increase the state's data protection standards included some points warranting further discussion and some intriguing ideas. A related poll shows readers share my skepticism about businesses' will and capacity to fix the data loss problem.

Reader comments on my post about the California governor's veto of a bill that would increase the state's data protection standards included some points warranting further discussion and some intriguing ideas. A related poll shows readers share my skepticism about businesses' will and capacity to fix the data loss problem.Reader Scott Taylor writes:

"What makes you think a government program would be better. Normal economics won't work once gov programs take over. With current conditions, market pressures will force credit card company, banks, etc. to step up and solve the problem or the consumer will simply go another route."

In most other circumstances, I'd agree with Scott. I would prefer the problem be solved by market forces and without the long arm of government reaching in. But that hasn't worked in this case, and dramatic steps are needed to give consumers back some sense of control over their identities and personal information.

One reader labeled my blog an "anti-business rant." As stated above, I'd much rather keep government out of the affairs of business and focus on what it can do well (ironically, personal data protection doesn't make that list, as several readers noted). As much as I don't want an intrusive government meddling in business or personal affairs, I want privacy and protection of my personal data even more.

Every time I use a credit card today, the threat of identity theft looms in my mind. It's not helping that I'm also an Ameritrade customer, a Verizon Wireless customer, and I've gotten other "Dear Tom, we just lost lots of customer data" letters.

In the case of Verizon Wireless, I picked up the phone immediately on learning of its data sharing policies and opted out of them. In the past, I would have taken the trouble to lodge a formal complaint or at least write a letter objecting to Verizon Wireless' practices, but the use/misuse of our data is so prevalent that complaining seems downright futile.

I found particularly telling the accounts from IT professionals in big companies who say that their organizations are more likely to act out of fear that they not become the next TJ Maxx than the better goals of complying with laws or protecting customers' identities.

Inside one large banking organization, according to "Tom," this is the state of affairs:

"Most of the discussions are about avoiding the damaging publicity of a breach, as opposed to impact of violating one of the many regulations already covering this area."

Some expressed the dismaying view that there's not enough financial incentive to invest in protections; rather, this argument goes, companies will take their lumps for a data breach, pay their fines and move on. That's cheaper than fixing the problem. I just can't accept that argument, either. The breach at TJ Maxx's parent cost more than a quarter-billion dollars, so far.

Some of the more constructive reader suggestions on how to force better protections:

From MarcoVincenzo:

What we really need are laws restricting what information can be collected and mandatory destruction of that information in the shortest practicable time period.

Amen to that.

From Steve:

We should be asked if we want to 'opt in.' Why should the baseline be that companies can use your private info unless you opt out?

See Verizon Wireless comments above.

Results from the poll I fielded indicate a high degree of skepticism of the businesses collecting data. Among 100 respondents, 57% say they don't think businesses will figure it out how to protect your data in the absence of legislation. That 57% was evenly split between the view that it's unlikely they'll figure it out and the view that they're simply incapable of doing so.

Another 39% are more optimistic; they think business will eventually figure out how to protect personal data in the absence of legislation forcing them to do so - most saying they'll do so eventually rather than quickly.

In this debate, count me among the pessimists.

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