Could Your Private Information Be Sold By Failing Enterprises?

18 May

We have become a very data-driven world. Businesses value customer data almost as much as the bottom line. For some, it is the bottom-line. In fact, almost every company doing business in any facet has some amount of personal consumer data that it stores. Rewards cards, store credit cards, online orders – the list goes on. These companies store all of that data, and it is all perfectly legal. However, as the information age has reached new heights, governing bodies have stepped in to help consumers and users with data security regulations. These continue to progress and become more stringent.

One of the main issues at hand, though, is what a company can do with the data it legally collected prior, when the company goes under. This is a heated topic that has been debated recently and has been at the forefront of the news cycle with former electronics giant RadioShack. With the increase in online sales and the growth of stores like Target, WalMart, and BestBuy, stores like RadioShack took a hit, and it soon forced them into bankruptcy. So what is RadioShack to do? Well, sell your data, of course.

RadioShack is attempting to sell off customer data to other companies to help settle the bankruptcy. But, the Federal Trade Commission is requesting that the courts put restrictions on the matter. FTC Director Jessica Rich wrote a letter to the court requesting restrictions on the sale in order to protect consumer privacy. The letter claims that “…substantial amounts of personal data collected by RadioShack, including consumers’ names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and purchase histories, are among the assets being put up for auction to settle the bankruptcy. Documents indicate information from tens of millions of consumers may be among the assets for sale.”

Rich made several recommendations to the court that, “…consumers’ information not be sold as a standalone asset, but be bundled with other assets…that consumer information be sold only to another entity that is in substantially the same line of business as RadioShack…that the buyer agree to be bound by the RadioShack privacy policies that were in place when the consumers’ data was collected, and that the buyer provide consumers with notice and obtain their affirmative consent before using data in a way that is materially different from the promises RadioShack made to consumers.”

The fact of the matter is RadioShack is allowed to sell your data, legally speaking. However, in their stated privacy policies, RadioShack promised not to sell customer information or its mailing lists.

Rich pointed to a similar case that was recently settled by online toy company Toysmart.com. Toysmart.com made it explicitly clear in their privacy policy that they would not sell consumer information, however, tried to do so when the company went under. The FTC stepped in and the court put restrictions, similar to those Rich requests here, on the sale or trade of consumer information. Ultimately, customer information was not used in ways the consumer did not previously agree to.

The FTC requests this this happen with the RadioShack case as well.

This brings us back to the topic of the data-driven world. Customer data is almost as valuable as a physical product. It surely garners similar attention. However, a toy company selling off inventory is much different than selling off customer data. The toy does not have rights to privacy, or wasn’t promised anything in the beginning. Much less, the toy is not a living, breathing being that could be placed under duress should their information be obtained for less than respectable purposes.

The line that is toed here is a thin one, but consumer privacy is no laughing matter. The digital world creates more obstacles and risks than ever before. Our data is given, bought, and sold all the time and we don’t even know it. We don’t get an email or a phone call. We aren’t sent a letter or formally asked for permission. In fact, to purchase most products or services we must agree to the company’s service or license agreement. We’re so overjoyed by purchasing what we want, and getting it almost immediately, that we don’t even take the time to look at the rules governing our purchase. Companies create massive documents that most people are simply too overwhelmed, or won’t understand, to read anyways. In the end, it’s nice to know that someone is looking out for the consumer.