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Privacy Fondly Remembered

Meandering around my hard drive the other day, I ran across a position paper issued by the Research Industry Coalition in 1993, “Safeguarding Respondents and Data.”


The first paragraph of the RIC statement reads:

Concern has mounted among the general public about the intrusions of business and government into their private lives. The Research Industry Coalition (RIC), representing the leading pro­fes­sional and trade associations in the fields of marketing and opinion research, wishes to em­pha­size our deep and long-standing commitment to protecting the privacy of research partici­pants and the confidentiality of the data we gather.

Here is an excerpt from the accompanying press release:

“Research Industry Reaffirms Privacy Commitment”

“We hope to increase the public’s confidence in the marketing and opinion research process,” said Newton Frank, Chair of RIC. “The public is rightly concerned about privacy issues, and we want them to know that the research industry has been playing a leadership role in this area for many years.”

Our objective is to reassure the public that the information they provide for marketing and opinion research purposes will be handled in accordance with professional standards that safe­guard their privacy.

RIC, as some will recall, came together in the early 90s and later morphed into CMOR – an amalgam of major US marketing and social research associations. I represented QRCA at the first meeting and stayed around for a while, eventually rotating into the Chair.

I remember that this initiative seemed really important and forward facing at the time. All the member associations had strict standards for protecting respondent anonymity, and we wanted to promote them.

We did not believe that privacy concerns were a key driver of declining response rates, but we believed they could play a role. Equally or more important, we also figured that our scruples around data should legitimately set us apart from telemarketers – especially in the eyes of legislators and regulators.

I think these points and the endorsements by the industry later helped CMOR get some exclusions for marketing and opinion research written into regulations targeting “phone spam.” Maybe Diane Bowers will chime in and let us know.

Political and strategic concerns aside, however, we believed in safeguarding respondent privacy because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sure we all still do.

But does anyone outside the traditional old-line academically based research community share our commitment or care what we think?

And in the larger scheme does it matter what we think or what we do?

Not long after issuing the position paper RIC met with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I want to say that we met with Mitch Kapor, but I can’t find my notes and could be wrong.

What I do remember is that during that meeting I concluded that privacy qua privacy was either a lost cause or on a bullet train headed in that direction. I figured (1993) that our main defense against depredations of snooping government (and worse) was that the technology was simply not there yet to do the massive overlays and collations required.

Figure it is now?

As committees and task forces meet earnestly and valiantly to set out currently relevant guidelines for protecting the privacy of respondents, I wonder just how relevant and effective we can hope to be.

Certainly we can observe the common decencies and maintain traditional practices when handling data from respondents that we contact and interview ourselves. We are, however, witnessing a relentless shrinking of our sphere of control.

Who is able to guarantee that panelists who put their demographics and psychographics into panel databases are not being tracked by spyware or “advanced cookies?” What can we really do to guarantee the anonymity of MROCs?

I could throw out many more of these, and I’m sure you could mention many I have not thought of. You and I could also probably come up with some elegant strategies for best efforts as well. It’s worth doing. I’m not defeatist, well, not exactly.

But do you have the feeling that all of our efforts are like trying to stem a tsunami with a barbed wire fence?

Absolutely yes yes yes, we should continue to do the right thing as we see it. But as we go about it with energy and creativity, we also have to think about a consumer whose social security number, blood type, medical history, financial transactions, elementary school disciplinary infractions, website IDs and passwords, avatars, aliases, address, and locations over the past two years (and right this second) are all available for purchase or targeting. Just how important to that person is it that we guard her preference for Tide over Cheer?

Having said all of this, I do think that researchers and research standards can teach the world something about how to handle data. And I think taking stands can be instructive and worthwhile.

But let’s not take my word for it. Let’s ask Big Brother.

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One response to “Privacy Fondly Remembered

  1. I appreciate hearing Mr. Weylock’s thinking on this subject. I think privacy issues are getting urgent in our Industry and society in general.

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