The anti-whaling movement failed and failed, until it didn’t. The movement took off when, in the late nineteen-sixties, scientists and others began to identify and record whale songs. Hearing those ethereal noises, the song of the Humpback whale in particular, was all some leaders needed to feel inspired to act on the problem. Or so the story goes.
The privacy community has been waiting for its proverbial whale song since the database debates from that same time period. Last year saw some good candidates. I’ve written about how drones make it easier to visualize the perils of surveillance—especially when a drone flies up to the window of a U.S. Senator. And of course there were the Edward Snowden revelations that prompted the President to begin to embrace national intelligence reform.
Today, NBC Chicago reports about a letter OfficeMax apparently sent to a couple who lost their daughter in a tragic accident last year. The letter was addressed to Mike Seay. The second line read “Daughter In A Car Crash Or Current Business.”
Let that sink in for a second. A father lost his daughter and OfficeMax or its provider used this fact to select how to market to him. This happens all of the time. But in this case, OfficeMax wrote what it was doing on the envelope, reducing the Seay family to some category peddled by data brokers. On paper, for the world to see.
This story could not have come at a worse time for the industry. The nation’s consumer watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission, has taken the rare step of invoking its subpoena power to look into industry practices. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) convened a hearing on the precise issue of third parties selling lists of consumers, during which he called the industry “lethal” and promised more oversight. In general, more and more consumers are realizing the extent and danger of data-driven, vulnerability-based marketing. Many feel that marketers will use whatever information they can get their hands on, no matter how sensitive, to try to drive sales.
I cannot say for certain what effect the Seay incident will have, apart from predicting it will come up again and again during the ongoing debate. But I would not want to be in the data broker industry right now, any more than I would want to be a commercial whaler in the nineteen-seventies. If it turns out public outcry buries this industry as we know it, the tombstone could well read “Daughter In A Car Crash Or Current Business.”