Should Wisconsin consumers be notified when their personal data is collected, sold, or disclosed?

My submission to the Political Posturing column in the June 2109 issue of InBusiness Magazine.

Should Wisconsin consumers be notified when their personal data is collected, sold, or disclosed?

The question implies an after-the-fact notification, so I think it’s the wrong question. Should it be legal to collect and retain basic consumer personal data? Yes, as long as the data is only used for internal use. This does not include anything beyond the basics. In other words, name, address, email, phone number, purchase history, and in some cases IP address.

Should it be legal to distribute a consumer’s personal data? No! Under no circumstances should it be legal to sell, transfer, or disclose any consumer’s personal data.

Regardless of the legality, is it ethical to distribute the personal data of consumers who are your customers? Absolutely not! Customers rely on the integrity of the companies they do business with to keep their personal information confidential. Any distribution of their personal data is a violation of that trust. Also, the golden rule applies: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The problem I see is that consumers are regularly forced into agreeing to a company’s “terms of service” that include giving up their right to not have their personal data distributed. It’s highly unethical to force people to give up their right to privacy to engage in an activity such as purchasing a widget.

Where I work, we collect only the basic data from our customers that is required to place an order and properly bill for that order. We do not use or distribute any of the data for any other purpose. We take personal privacy very seriously.

In summary, distributing the personal data of others is wrong! Here is what I would propose:

1. Companies need to tell consumers exactly what basic information they will collect, and they need do it in a very simple form listing each piece of data collected. They should give the consumer the option to opt out of any part of the data collection or opt out of all of it, with the exception of basic purchase history data. Don’t bury the consumer in technical jargon or bury the information in the legalese of a terms-of-service dissertation that only experienced insurance agents and attorneys can read. Keep it simple.

2. Make it illegal to disclose or distribute collected consumer data. This is one situation where relying on industry best practices isn’t enough.

Distributing the personal data of others is wrong!

My counterpart in the discussion Brad Werntz offers one rationalization over and over again to somehow justify ignoring the distribution of personal data. The rationalization he repeatedly offers is #1A on Ethics Alarms list of Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions

1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.”
This is the rationalization that argues that if society is incapable of effectively preventing unethical conduct, for whatever reason, we might as well stop regarding that conduct as wrong. This is yet another variation on the most common and insidious rationalization of them all and #1 on the list: “Everybody Does It.”

The Golden Rationalization has many variations, among them…

“It’s done all the time.”

“It’s always been done this way.”

“It’s tradition.”

“Everybody is used to it.”

“Everybody accepts it.”

“Nobody’s complained before.”

“It’s too late to change now.”

…and others. Ethics Surrender, however, warrants particular attention, as it encourages moral cowardice and ethics complacency. “We can’t stop it” is a lazy capitulation that assumes cultures can’t change, and we know they can and dochange, both for better and worse, all the time. One society has been convinced, though legitimate, persistent, coherent and ethically valid arguments, that a common practice or conduct is bad for society, society can stop or seriously inhibit that unethical practice of behavior, either by law, regulation, or best of all, the evolution of cultural consensus. The examples of an Ethics Surrender resulting in undesirable societal consequences are too numerous to list, and many of them are still controversial. I would assign having children out of wedlock, adultery, lying by elected leaders and the use of illegal recreational drugs to the “We can’t stop it, so let’s say it’s not so bad” category. The most obvious and currently significant example is illegal immigration, wrong, but increasingly being rationalized by both advocates and lawmakers who have run out of ideas and principle. At this moment, we are hearing the defenders of dubious police shootings making that argument to avoid examining possible changes in law enforcement policy so there will be fewer deaths without putting police in peril.

Ethics is hard. Rationalization 1A, Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it,” wrongly concludes that it is impossible.

No Mr. Werntz, as I stated above, we can “make it illegal to disclose or distribute collected consumer data” and prosecute anyone who does so. It’s interesting how some people choose to unethically throw up their hands and use rationalizations over obvious logical solutions.

The unethical distribution of personal data is just another seed in the apathy corruption of our society.

Featured Photo Credit: Cropped image of a blank 2018 Form 1040, Steve Witherspoon

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