Simple steps can reduce those unwanted intrusions
“Privacy,” the late actor Marlon Brando once said, “is not something I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”
The reclusive Brando bought his own Tahitian atoll to protect his privacy, something that is probably out of reach for you and me. So how does one, in today’s very public world, remain private?
Once upon a time, we simply erected “private property” signs to keep the rest of the world at bay. That simply doesn’t cut it any more. Not with those darn telemarketers calling at dinner time, all that junk mail being shoved through our mail slots and spam cluttering up our e-mail in baskets.
How do we make it all stop?
In short, it isn’t easy, but there are steps you can take to avoid intrusions into your private life. And some of them are quite simple, meaning you don’t have to become a virtual hermit to enjoy a more private world.
Take telemarketing or direct mail, for example.
If average Canadians had a dollar for every credit card application stuffed through their mail slots over the years, they could probably afford to pay off their credit card balance. But there is a way to stop the influx, or at least a good portion of it. And it won’t cost you a dime.
The Canadian Marketing Association has 800 members, some of them the creme de la creme of the Canadian business world. Among them are the Royal Bank, Manulife, Aeroplan, Intrawest, Kraft Foods, Ford and charitable groups like the Arthritis Foundation.
For several years, the CMA has been offering a Do Not Contact Service to consumers who don’t want to be contacted by marketers. It’s as easy as going to the CMA’s website, www.the-cma.org, and clicking on the Do Not Contact Service icon.
Consumers have the option of stopping phone, fax and mail solicitation by CMA members with a click of their computer mouse.
“It’s phone, fax or mail and they have the opportunity of registering both address and phone number or they can pick and choose,” says association spokesman Ed Cartwright.
The association has had about 340,000 phone numbers registered by consumers who don’t want any more telemarketing calls. When you include the requests to stop direct mail and faxes, the number increases to about half a million.
Telemarketing is big business. The most recent figures indicate Canadians purchase $16 billion in goods and services over the telephone each year. Cartwright says the CMA simply recognized that it made good business sense to respect consumers’ privacy.
“Telemarketing is definitely perceived by consumers as being much more intrusive than mail because it is an interruption to their life, particularly in some cases over the dinner hour,” he says. “And one of the reasons why the association introduced its own Do Not Call Service for consumers is for that very reason, to stop the consumer frustration.
“For business, it made sense as well because why waste their resources phoning someone who doesn’t want to be telemarketed to? They’ll find another way to reach consumers.”
It generally takes about six weeks for the phone calls and mail to stop from CMA members once you have signed up with the Do Not Contact Service. It won’t, however, end all of those unsolicited calls.
“One of the issues with the Do Not Call Service is that it is only mandatory for our members,” says Cartwright.
That’s why the CMA has been a major proponent of a national do not call registry, similar to the one set up recently in the United States. The association has been critical of a decision earlier this year by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission not to institute a do not call registry.
“We will still push for a national registry here in Canada,” Cartwright says. “It’s a one-stop source, a place where consumers can go to have their names taken off of marketing lists. It hopefully would level the playing field. Of course, there are still going to be those fraudulent operators out there that will bypass any type of rule or regulation.”
Canada Post followed the CMA’s lead nearly three years ago when it introduced what it calls its Consumer Choice program. It allows consumers to put a stop to all unaddressed mail and flyers.
Bob Taylor, Canada Post’s manager of corporate communications in the Pacific region, says consumers who request the service only get mail that is specifically addressed to them.
“What happens is you will not get any flyers,” Taylor says. “You can’t pick or choose. It’s all or nothing.”
There is one exception, however.
“You will continue to receive mail from your local member of Parliament,” Taylor says. “We can’t cut that out.”
Consumers wanting to rid themselves of unaddressed mail need only deliver a note to their letter carrier, Taylor says. Only about three or four per cent of Canada Post’s customers have signed on for the service.
“It isn’t as high as we thought it might be,” Taylor says. “It’s that old story. We get people saying, ‘but I want my Canadian Tire flyer.’ We’ve had a lot of people decide they’ll keep getting everything and just throw out the stuff they don’t want.”
At Telus, the phone company offers a number of services that offer consumers more privacy. Their Call Screen service, for example, intercepts calls from up to 12 pre-selected numbers and routes the call to a recording that says: “The party you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time.” Your phone does not ring and the screened caller is not able to leave a message. The service costs $4.95 a month or can be purchased as part of a “bundle.”
Canada Post, Telus and the Canadian Marketing Association are just three examples of the business world taking the privacy concerns of their customers seriously.
David Loukidelis is British Columbia‘s privacy commissioner and he thinks many Canadian businesses deserve high marks for addressing the privacy concerns of their customers.
“Certainly, the private sector is coming on board in Canada and understands that good privacy is good business,” Loukidelis says.
“They understand that having a level playing field with the same common-sense rules for everybody is a good thing and really helps them promote their brand as being a privacy-sensitive business, especially for financial service companies. I feel good about that.”
Loukidelis has been B.C.’s privacy watchdog since 1999 and while he is delighted to see more businesses take a proactive approach to privacy, he knows the battle is far from over. Technology may have helped simplify certain things in our lives, but it most certainly has made it more difficult to guard one’s privacy.
“Privacy is a difficult thing in that you often don’t recognize its value until it’s lost and then it’s too late,” says Loukidelis. “It’s so context-sensitive that it’s difficult for people to appreciate. We often get faced with the, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to hide, why should I care?’ argument.
“I think people would be surprised, if they are challenged on that and rigorously questioned, about how much they would say, ‘No, that’s private and I want to keep that private.’ . . .Most of us do have something we would rather not reveal to everybody else, to business, to the government. I think, too, there is an argument in principle that it is still up to the government to justify why it intrudes on our liberties in the public interest.”
Loukidelis and his office are responsible for enforcing the Personal Information Protection Act, which sets out requirements for how organizations may collect, use, disclose and secure your personal information.
The Privacy Commissioner’s Office is currently waging a couple of significant privacy battles on behalf of British Columbians. It has been examining the implications of the U.S. Patriot Act with respect to the outsourcing of British Columbians’ personal information to U.S.-linked private companies.
And Loukidelis has taken a lead role in campaigning against a public push by Canada‘s police chiefs to secure greater access to the e-mail and Internet communications and activities of Canadians.
Loukidelis and other privacy experts suggest consumers must closely guard their personal information when conducting any kind of business online or off. They recommend only providing information that is absolutely necessary to complete a transaction.
“People need to be their own privacy watchdogs in order to protect their interests,” says Loukidelis. “Identity theft in many respects is just fraud. It is really about the security of your personal information.”
Murray Mollard, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, suggests consumers ask plenty of questions before turning over any personal information.
“Before giving your name, address and other kinds of personal information, you must decipher what the purpose of it is and then you must make some decisions about whether you are going to trade your personal information for the use to which they are going to put that information,” Mollard says.
“That takes time and effort and some matter of intelligence in terms of trying to understand everything. Often the client representative you are dealing with won’t be able to give you the answer to the questions you have. So you are off down a line of bureaucracy and hopefully at some point you might find the right answer and you just may get stymied and you are left having to make decisions about whether you want to provide it or not.”
If you are conducting business online, it is wise to read the privacy policies that most reputable companies post on their websites. Those policies should let you know what will be done with the personal information collected during a transaction.
Loukidelis stresses that consumers can and must exercise choice.
“Businesses can’t require you to give your personal information beyond what is necessary for the purposes of the transaction,” he says. “So I would suggest people ask questions and exercise their rights as consumers, really. And be prepared to follow up. If you think that somebody has inappropriately used your personal information or maybe has some incorrect information I would take them up on that. They are required to have a procedure in place to challenge that. Be proactive. It’s simple to do and it doesn’t cost anything.”
Guarding your personal information, especially on the Internet, is important because personal data now gets traded like a commodity.
“The real key for privacy on the Internet is how that information might then be captured by organizations involved in electronic commerce and manipulated in order to produce lists, profiles and marketing information that could be valuable to other vendors,” says Colin Bennett, a University of Victoria political scientist who specializes in privacy issues. “Personal information is a commodity and it is worth a lot of money to some people.”
That’s why Bennett says it is important to take some relatively simple steps to protect your privacy online. He suggests spyware software, some of which can be downloaded free, is a must. And he recommends deleting most or all of your “cookies” on your home computer. Cookies are small text files that are placed on your computer’s hard drive when you visit websites. Cookies collect and store information about you based on your browsing patterns and the information you provide.
Still, with common-sense precautions, Bennett says doing business online can be safer than traditional commerce.
“There are many areas where the Internet is more secure for transactions than the non-electronic world,” Bennett says.
“It is more secure to pay by credit card most of the time over the Internet than it is to place your credit card down over the counter in a shop where a bit of paper is constructed perhaps with a carbon copy on the back which gets thrown out and could be retrieved from the garbage.”
Protecting your privacy, the experts seem to agree, comes down to minding one’s own business.
ENSURING YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION IS SECURE:
The Personal Information Protection Act sets out requirements for how organizations may collect, use, disclose and secure your personal information. Under the act, you have the right to:
- Know why an organization collects, uses or discloses your personal information.
- Expect an organization to collect, use or disclose your personal information reasonably and appropriately.
- Be told who is responsible within an organization for protecting your personal information.
- Expect an organization to protect your personal information by taking appropriate security measures.
- Expect that the personal information used or disclosed by an organization is accurate and complete.
- Request corrections to your personal information.
- Request access to your personal information.
- Complain to the organization about how it collects, uses or discloses your personal information.
- Appeal to the Privacy Commissioner if you have tried unsuccessfully to resolve a dispute about your personal information with an organization.
Source: Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia
ONLINE PRIVACY TIPS:
Privacy experts suggest that consumers must closely guard personal information when conducting business.
- Always read website privacy policies or statements before submitting personal information, especially sensitive financial or medical information.
- Participate in chat or discussion groups under a pseudonym.
- Be cautious when providing your e-mail address online. Always read the privacy notice and be sure you are dealing with a legitimate entity. As a rule, don’t provide someone else’s e-mail address online.
- Use disposable e-mail addresses for mailing lists, contests, etc.
- Install and use anti-spam, firewall, anti-virus and other privacy and security enhancing software and keep it up to date. Download and install critical security patches from your operating system.
Source: Privacy Commissioner of Canada
© The Vancouver Sun 2004