Secrets Come Cheap

We moan about the loss of privacy, then trade our mother's maiden name to save a nickel on a can of beans.

by / February 28, 1999
Though many would prefer not to receive an avalanche of junk mail, when privacy advocates decry direct mailing as an invasion of privacy, many find it much ado about nothing, content to simply throw away unwanted mail. When privacy advocates point out business practices that include compiling and analyzing our personal information, creating sophisticated market profiles to be sold to marketers at a profit, more of us find that invasive.

Just how much do we actually treasure our privacy in practice? The results of a survey of subscribers to various Conde Naste publications suggest that most of us are almost eager to divulge the most personal of information.

Conde Naste publishes The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and other magazines. In a survey sent with issues last May to readers who had subscribed two or more times, the company asked hundreds of personal questions. In introducing the survey, responded to by 400,000 people, Conde Naste, according to The Washington Post, explained that "your People are truly concerned about their privacy -- 90 percent, in a recent Harris poll. Yet, they give out personal information
all the time.

answers to the questions that follow will allow us to target the areas which interest you most and help us be more rewarding to you." It added, "Just answer the questions below to start the conversation and become part of this select group of subscribers to whom marketers listen first." New Yorker publisher Thomas Florio told his subscribers that those who responded to the survey would be those "to whom we can turn first for a valued opinion about the products you see on our pages or for a first look when there is something sensational looming on the horizon."

Asking for respondents' names, the survey requested information about smoking, drinking, hobbies and shopping. It asked about the kind of cars subscribers owned, their computers and their Internet habits. It wanted to know subscribers' attitudes toward marriage, having a baby or being a grandparent. For those about to get married, the survey asked the month and year of the wedding. Health-related questions dipped into everything from acne to vaginal infections. The survey also asked for information about prescription drugs.

According to the Post, the survey stayed away from financial information, but not out of respect for individual privacy. The Post pointed out that Conde Naste already had access to such information from other services. Stephen Jacoby, Conde Naste vice president for marketing and databases, told the newspaper, "We get it from other sources, so I don't have to ask."

A Convenient Release

When poll after poll indicates that people are concerned about their lack of privacy and appear resigned about having lost control over their personal data, why would they willingly part with such information? Edward Nash, a marketing consultant and author of "Database Marketing: The Ultimate Marketing Tool," told the Post, "It's amazing. It's impotence and incontinence and all kinds of things they don't tell anybody. People tell us all kinds of things they wouldn't tell their neighbors." He added: "It's a release. Sometimes they want to let something out."

Conde Naste has an in-house database of more than 15 million people, and it sells mailing lists of subscribers' names. However, it has pledged not to sell information it gleaned as a result of the recent survey. But it does intend to use the results to connect subscribers with businesses that offer products or services the respondents want.

The cavalier response to the Conde Naste survey is a graphic illustration of the privacy conundrum. On the one hand, people are truly concerned about their privacy -- 90 percent, in a recent Harris poll. Add to that the large percentage of people who say they have been victimized at some time by a business that has invaded their privacy or misused their information.

On the other hand, people give out personal information all the time. No matter how sensitive people insist their Social Security number is, they give it to sales clerks for the asking. Many may give out their number under duress, feeling that they have no alternative if they want to take advantage of the store's offer, but few of us seem to agonize over the problem for more than a few seconds.

The discount cards now common in supermarkets allow the stores to catalog our purchases, storing that information for their own benefit and for whatever it might be worth for sale in the information market. And what do we get in return? Perhaps a small reduction in our bill, occasionally a 10 percent discount on a particular item. While the benefits are meager, we still don't question the practice much.

Low Online Comfort

Polls also indicate that the comfort level for electronic transactions is still low, in large part because individuals are hesitant to provide personal information, particularly credit card or other financial information, in an environment in which the recipient is known only through an electronic address. Sites that assure the consumer that transactions are processed through secure encryption tend to raise the comfort level. So we part with credit card information in face-to-face transactions or over the phone without a second thought, which says something about the comfort level we enjoy with such transactions, but also raises questions of how zealously we guard our credit information.

Privacy is a valuable asset, and it should not be one that we are pressured to surrender for a more favorable price. Businesses and government agencies should observe fair-information-practices principles that include collecting only as much information as is needed for an individual transaction and using that information only for purposes of the transaction, unless the customer is aware of other uses and consents to them.

If privacy is to be seen as nothing more than one part of bargaining in the marketplace and its value determined by its economic appeal, incidents like the Conde Naste survey show clearly that people are willing to trade their privacy for a few cents. For those who believe strongly in the sanctity of privacy, consumer education still has a long way to go before privacy wins out in the marketplace.

Harry Hammitt is editor/publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter published in Lynchburg, Va., covering open-government laws and information-policy issues. Email
Harry Hammitt Contributing Writer