Self-proclaimed consumer champion Which? has been branded “irresponsible and idiotic” for urging consumers to set up fake email addresses and “dirty” their data when they sign up to new companies to protect themselves “if something goes wrong”.
The recommendation is just one of a number of “key data asks” included in a new report from the organisation, Control, Alt or Delete? – The Future of Consumer Data, which calls for consumers to be given more control over their personal information.
Whether Which? would be happy for its own customers to “dirty” their data is another matter. While the organisation – a registered charity – claims to be at the forefront of fighting the consumer’s corner, it also makes millions of pounds a year through its data-driven commercial enterprises. Which? CEO Peter Vicery-Smith, who recently announced he will stand down in September this year, is paid a whopping £462,000 a year.
Nevertheless, Which? points out that with companies and organisations now processing unprecedented amounts of personal data, many consumers feel uneasy and powerless over the impact it has in their daily lives.
The report features extensive interviews with consumers over how they feel about data use. It found that people are often pragmatic about this, particularly if they see a benefit to them. But there are still significant concerns, with most (81%) saying they are worried about their data being sold to third parties.
It reveals a widespread sense of disempowerment. Many consumers are unsure of either the impact that data collection, transfer and sharing has on them, or whether it is worth the trade-off for the benefits they receive, it claims.
The organisation’s “key data asks” are:
More transparency: People must be given a clearer picture on the impact of data collection and sharing on their lives. This information must be delivered in a timely manner that’s sensitive to the context of what they’re doing. We’re calling on the new Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation to take a lead on driving this.
Digital advertising: ‘People-based’ marketing is now big business, particularly with huge and powerful companies such as Facebook and Google. We’re calling on the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) to urgently review this emerging advertising market to better understand the impact on consumers.
Tech check: We’re calling on the Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation to review how technology is used to move consumer data around networks and systems. While we want to support technology and innovation, we also want oversight and enforcement for when things go wrong. How to protect your data privacy
Check your settings: Investigate the menus or settings to see whether you can control what data is collected and shared. For example, the Android and iOS operating systems now enable you to set what kinds of data individual apps can access.
‘Dirty’ your data: We use fake data in our testing, and you can too. Use a ‘spam’ email to create non-essential accounts. Known as ‘dirtying’ your data, this process means the impact on you is minimal if something does go wrong.
Set secure passwords: Securing your personal data is as important as maintaining your privacy. Make sure you set strong, unique and memorable passwords for all your accounts and devices.
A recent report released by data specialists Wilmington Millennium found that up to a third of customer data captured via web forms and stored in customer databases is already being fabricated.
One industry insider said: “While many of the recommendations in this report are laudable, urging consumers to set up fake email addresses is both irresponsible and idiotic. Which? certainly wouldn’t want its own customers to do that. If it is really such a consumer champion, it should be promoting how GDPR will empower the public to control their data. This recommendation hardly chimes with the Information Commissioner’s Office message.”
For its part, the ICO’s has refrained from criticising the report’s findings but is quick to point out its work around GDPR. Deputy commissioner Steve Wood said: “This research is a timely and valuable contribution to the debate on data protection, privacy and the digital economy.
“We completely agree that consumers need more help realising the value and importance of their personal data. That’s why, to coincide with the introduction of GDPR, we have launched a public awareness campaign called ‘Your Data Matters’.
“As consumers, sharing data safely and efficiently can make our lives easier, but that digital trail is valuable so it’s important that it stays safe and is only used in ways that we would expect and can control.
“In many ways it feels like we are at a data ethics tipping point in respect of the public’s trust in the way that their personal data is collected and used. This reinforces the need for fairness, transparency and accountability.”
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