This week, the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on the topic of consumer privacy with a new report that essentially says individuals need more protection than the rules and guidelines in place today provide. ”The traditional distinction between personally identifiable information and ‘anonymous’ data has blurred,” the agency says in its report. It says companies need to “mak[e] privacy the ‘default setting’ for commercial data practices and giv[e] consumers greater control over the collection and use of their personal data.”
Specifically, the FTC suggests that Congress enact what it calls “baseline privacy legislation” and says companies need to implement a “do not track” option for customers shopping online. It expresses concern that consumers are often unaware when data is being collected and warehoused, and that they don’t really have a good idea of the extent to which data about them and their behaviors is gathered.
Data brokers, the companies that collect and sell consumer information to credit bureaus, banks, retailers and other enterprises, contend that much of the information they gather is public record. But with the ongoing growth of e-commerce and the explosion in social networking, much more information about any given consumer is now available. The FTC expresses concern that if enough of these anonymous puzzle pieces are connected, they’ll create an identifiable digital portrait.
Merchants and marketers contend that the information they gather helps them do a better job of offering customers what they really want to buy. Perhaps not surprisingly, retail trade groups have voiced opposition to the FTC’s conclusions. They “say companies—not customers—should decide how long, and which, electronic consumer data is stored,” an article in the Wall Street Journal says. Do we need to point out that customers might feel differently about this?
The FTC wants these companies to come up with voluntary “do not track” guidelines, but it says if these industries don’t, lawmakers could step in and do the job for them. FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz told the New York Times, “If a real Do Not Track option doesn’t come to fruition by the end of the year, there will be, I don’t want to say a tsunami of support for Do Not Track legislation next Congress, but certainly a lot of support.”