Friday, April 3, 2015

A Matter of Trust

Trust lies at the basis of all human relationships. Friend, lover, business partner … All are bonded to you by trust. You willingly enter into such relationships based on the belief that the other party will not misuse, or use against you, anything you share with them. This is the essence of trust. It is a belief in the good faith of another. It is so strong a belief, that in America, we have even inscribed the words “In God we trust” on that which we value most, our money.

Whom, other than God, should we trust? We live in the Information Age, and the most valuable commodity of the Information Age is information. For Corporate America, indeed, for the multinational web of corporations, personal information about consumers, especially potential consumers of their products or services, is the most valuable asset in existence. They seek it out with the tenacity of a vampire constantly foraging for fresh blood. Unfortunately, consumers are often faced with no choice but to provide their personal information to corporations to receive products or services. But are these corporations asking for more information than they need to provide such products or services? Are they seeking additional information for future marketing purposes or to sell to third parties? Remember, information itself is a valuable currency. Once a consumer has provided personal information to a corporation, can the bloodsucking corporation be trusted?

The legal definition of trust is a relationship in which property is held by one party for the benefit of another. In this case, the corporation is holding in its databank a consumer’s property in the form of his or her personal information, ostensibly to provide the benefit of services or products. Does it breach this trust by using the information for other purposes, such as marketing or resale?

When I insured my home, I had to provide the insurance company with all sorts of personal information, including my Social Security number and my financial information. I did this for the sole purpose of receiving homeowners insurance. Likewise, when I applied for a Mobil credit card, I was required to provide the same information simply to be able to purchase gasoline with a credit card. In both cases, I had to provide far more information than should have been necessary for the limited purpose. But like most consumers, since I had to have insurance and credit cards, I complied. But can I trust these companies with my information?

This week, I received privacy notices from the insurer and Exxon Mobil, informing me that as a consumer, I have the right under federal law to control whether they share my personal information for marketing purposes. The problem is that these notices are opt-out notices: if I don’t want the corporations to share or sell my personal information, which I have entrusted them with for the sole purpose of providing me their product or service, then I must complete the form and return it to them (or, in the case of Exxon Mobil, phone them). The burden is placed on the consumer to proactively prevent the sharing of the entrusted personal information with strangers.

We as consumers should not have to do anything to stop corporations from breaching the trust we have placed in them and misusing or selling our personal information. Instead, corporations should be required to send consumers and opt-in form asking our permission to distribute the information we have provided them. This is a problem that must be addressed by Congress, and it is more imperative now than ever because the more personal information is spread amongst corporate databases, the greater the potential for that information to be stolen by hackers and used against the very individuals who provided it.

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