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What are the Issues Surrounding Customer Privacy?

Article Details
  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2016
    Conjecture Corporation
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In business, customer privacy is a matter of much discussion. Increasingly, many customers are interested in closely guarding their personal information, while businesses often want to harvest it. Whether customers transact with businesses in person, over the phone or online, a certain wariness exists regarding giving out detailed information that is deemed unnecessary to conducting business. For instance, at a retail store, demands for a customer’s phone number or zip code are unnecessary to many sales, and may be being used by the business in numerous ways to track sales. Some people, when faced with no alternative but to provide this information, will walk away from a sale, and this costs the business money.

Even before the Internet began, many businesses did stretch the bounds of customer privacy in a variety of ways. They might use customer information to track sales and determine better marketing strategies, or names of customers, as collected from things like personal checks, were added to company mailing lists. A number of businesses also obtained and sold information to other companies, or shared it with affiliate businesses. These scenarios, especially name and address sharing, resulted in higher amounts of unsolicited sales mail, which did not please all customers.

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A similar scenario has happened online, but the movement of information is so fast, that it’s quite possible for customers to begin receiving solicitations by mail, phone or email quickly after business transactions with a single company. More than ever, people understand and are concerned about where their information goes. This concern occasionally translates to customer privacy policies by businesses, so that customers can feel their information is secure and they are shopping or transacting business with a single entity instead of Big Brother.

One thing companies do to ensure customer privacy is create privacy policies and agreements. These are more common online than in stores, but they do specify exactly what ways private details of the individual could be used, including the sharing of personal information, and tracking of searches and sales through cookies. The smart company does perform this tracking, since it is valuable market research, but many companies now know they must give customers options not to participate. These are often called opt-outs, and they may be featured as part of customer privacy policy; such policies are worth reading because opt-outs may not be available elsewhere on a website.

In retail or other business environments, opt-out policies aren’t as common, but the person intent on customer privacy can still often get one. When asked for information that is not vital to a business transaction, people can refuse to give it. There are few companies that will really let a customer walk away on a sale if he/she chooses not to become a part of that company’s market research strategies.

Other contexts call for a clear definition of consumer privacy. Medical and legal fields commonly must make known the degree to which customers have presumption of privacy, and under what circumstances privacy no longer applies. Any reputable therapist will explain this in the first or second meeting with a new client, and in most cases must explain that privacy exists provided a disclosure does not suggest a danger to the client, or the client’s potential danger to someone else.

Many businesses have privacy agreements with each other, too. When two businesses work together, particularly on any information considered proprietary, they may draft extensive documents determining the consequences of violating such agreements. This last example is not truly consumer privacy, though it has a similar intent in protecting certain information and creating a sense of trust or ease in a working relationship.

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