Thursday, January 29, 2004

Sorry, but implementing privacy laws may upset some customers.

New laws, such as Alberta's new privacy law, often cause disruptions. There's a letter in the Edmonton Journal from an Epcor customer who is irate that she was not able to get information about her bill without her husband's OK. It appears that the account is in his name and EPCOR now has a policy that they won't give out information without the OK of the person whose name is on the account. I guess that seventeen years ago, when the account was opened, it didn't make any sense to put both names on it. More current practice that I've seen for new accounts is to ask the customer if they want an other person to have access to the account information. At least that was the case when I last set up an account with Aliant, my local phone company.

I have some sympathy for the writer of the angry letter:

"When I gave her my name she told me that due to the new provincial legislation regarding privacy and the disclosure of information to third parties, she could not talk to me. My husband was not at home at the time. I asked to speak to a supervisor and was given the same information.

I am livid. This account was established 17 years ago when we moved into our home and in fact our account is on Epcor's authorized payment withdrawal plan (we have a joint bank account).

The supervisor informed me that while we may have a joint account she still cannot talk to me. My husband would have to call Epcor and authorize them to add my name as a contact for our account! When he did call, they asked him for his date of birth for verification purposes. Turns out they have my date of birth on file.

I do not believe Epcor's practice is in the spirit of the new legislation. In fact, I called Shaw earlier this week where the account is also in my husband's name and had no problem talking with customer service about my account. "

While I may have some sympathy for her, the company in question is between a rock and a hard place, and it is better to err on the side of caution. They can't really rely on implied consent in this case, but one call from her husband should fix it.

I'm sure customers would be equally livid if they went through the experience of the guy in Missisauga Ontario whose ex-spouse received his cell-phone details without his consent, which were subsequently used against him and his mistress. (I can't find any other info on the story since the National Post took the September 27, 2003 story offline.) Philandering spouses usually don't get much sympathy, but the phone company was clearly in the wrong. It wouldn't take much imagination to imagine what sort of damage such a disclosure might have caused if it the records at issue were the calls made by an abused wife and the phone company had released records to an abusive spouse. Anybody thinking about what to do about releasing personal information really needs to weigh the inconvenience factor against the worst-case risk of harm. In light of the unfortunately reality out there, businesses really need to avoid accidentally giving the wrong people the tools to stalk, steal identities and commit violence. Unfortunately, nobody becomes aware of the disasters avoided.

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