Friday 30 January 2015

Getting down to the data protection pitfalls of profiling

As forecast in my last blog, the coolest data dudes in town assembled during the evening of Data Protection Day at Live Nation’s incredible offices in Islington for a session on profiling – and the data protection pitfalls.

Is there another building in town that lets its visitors arrive in the basement meeting rooms by way of a slide, rather than the stairs? I kid you not.

Expertly chaired by Live Nation’s international data governance guru Heike Norris, she really set the room at ease with her opening remarks. You know you’re in safe hands when the host’s first words are “OK, has everyone got a drink?”

I had a good look at the audience and was impressed – perhaps only a third were the usual data protection suspects. The others were from companies that didn’t employ specialist privacy professionals – but they were there because profiling formed an extremely important part of their business models, and they were really concerned at what might happen should the regulatory regime turn against them.

It's really refreshing to report that privacy sessions are (at long last) attracting the interest of people who aren't privacy specialists.

But, to business.

The business of profiling.

And it is a very serious business.

A panel of expert speakers comprised Richard Cumberley from Linklaters, Ticketmaster’s expert in marketing and analytics Sophie Crosbie, The Royal Mail’s Stephen McCartney, and Webber Shandwick’s John Mcleod. These are serious movers and shakers.  And a lot of what they had to say met with violent nods of agreement from the audience – which included a considerable smattering of exICO folk who, having done their time in Wilmslow, had now moved south to ply their trade.

The principal points to take away from the main session, and from the private chats after the formal proceedings had ended, were that:
  • In Europe, the concept of privacy has become an absolute right – but by stealth.  This is wrong. There ought to have been a far more open public debate before it was decided that privacy should be conferred the status of a fundamental right.
  • Europe’s Governments generally believe that profiling is wrong – unless it’s Governments that are doing it. And there are increasing signs that Governments want to do even more profiling of their citizens. Not only for national security purposes, but also for a whole range of other purposes which, because they are not “commercial”, are considered “benign”.
  • With respect to current marketing practices, today’s customers demand relevance. They expect organisations to know enough about their customers to send them compelling offers. To that extent, customers know and (mostly) accept the value exchange that currently exists, when personal information is supplied in exchange for “stuff”. 
  • Most marketing companies behave responsibly and use ethical profiling techniques on the datasets that are available to them. However, a small number of companies have gone further, and in ways that customers are uncomfortable with. So there is a need (for them) to explain the information value exchange in clearer terms.
  • Customers aren’t interested in learning about the complicated business models that require so much personal data to be shared. So, if a customer is unwilling to engage sufficiently with a data controller to offer their informed consent to profiling, there will have to continue to be more circumstances where it is in the organisation’s “legitimate interests” to profile them.
  • Customers generally don’t experience privacy – until they lose it. But when customers have lost it, and object to the processing that caused the loss of their privacy, organisations generally don’t delete the information that the customer was uneasy about the organisation knowing about them in the first place. (But they will stop marketing them.)
Live Nation certainly gave everyone who attended a great memory of this year’s Data Protection Day. They’re serious about respecting the rights of their customers – and about getting profiling right. Let’s hope that no new regulatory obstacles are created that have the effect of making it even harder for them to give their customers what they really, really want.