University admissions service UCAS has been forced to overhaul its application form after an investigation found the organisation was illegally signing up teenagers to receive ads about mobile phones, energy drinks and other commercial products and services.
The Information Commissioner’s Office investigation was sparked by an article in The Guardian in March last year, which accused UCAS of using “underhand tactics” to gather and sell the personal details of more than a million young people and their parents to advertisers.
The UCAS form only allowed applicants to opt-out of receiving marketing from commercial companies if they unticked three boxes covering marketing emails, post and text messages. The wording of the opt-out also meant that unticking these boxes would result in the applicant not receiving information about career opportunities and education providers or health information.
The ICO has ruled this approach meant applicants felt obliged to let UCAS use their information for commercial purposes, otherwise they would potentially miss out on important information about their career or education.
This breaches the Data Protection Act, which requires personal information to be processed fairly, and the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations, which govern electronic marketing and require consent to be given freely and for a specific purpose.
ICO head of enforcement Stephen Eckersley said: “Each year, more than half a million teenagers register with UCAS to apply for a place in higher education. UCAS has a responsibility to ensure that applicants can make free and balanced choices. By failing to give these applicants a clear option to avoid marketing, they were being unfairly faced with the default option of having their details used for commercial purposes. Our guidance is clear that consent must be freely given and specific.
“We are pleased that UCAS has agreed to address this issue and will now update their form so that people can make an informed decision on whether they are happy to receive marketing, or not. This can only be a good thing for our aspiring students by helping them to keep up-to-date on the information they want, while avoiding the hassle of unwanted marketing.”
Former and current UCAS applicants can change their marketing preferences on the UCAS website, or by using the unsubscribe options in any emails they have received.
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