Don’t dig the hole deeper

Everyone seems to be doing it. How many emails have you received this week with a “Covid-19 update” subject line? Sent by businesses you might have had some kind of contact with at some point in the last 10 years. Dressed up as service emails – even though you don’t actually have any kind of on-going commercial relationship – but the last few paragraphs are marketing.

I get it. Everyone’s desperate. The economy has disappeared down a black hole and we’re all hoping the government has some kind of plan for climbing back out.

But the rules haven’t changed. You still can’t send marketing emails to EU and UK recipients without their prior consent. Yes, there’s a soft opt-in if you actually bought something, but you have to have been given the option to opt-out at the time, and they can only market similar products. I’m getting emails from any number of businesses from which I have never bought anything; from businesses where I’m signed up for a very specific kind of service update only; and from businesses where I definitely opted out. I’m a privacy professional – opting out is kind of my thing.

Yes, the UK regulator appears to have gone on furlough. The Europeans not so much – ironically Italy’s Garante, for example, has issued much sterner guidance about use of personal health information during the crisis than the ICO. Nonetheless, regulatory action – now or later – remains a definite risk.

But the real risk lies in the consumer response. What kind of drugs do you have to be on to be trying to sell me a Caribbean holiday or a luxury collectables auction right now? How desperate do you seem? How insensitive to the real mood of the nation, and the real restrictions on what they can actually do, buy or afford? At best you’re going to annoy or upset people; at worst they might ask where you got their data and why you think you’re entitled to use it. Surely now is not the time to increase your privacy office’s workload?

I know you want to keep the lights on. I know we all want normal economic activity to resume. But breaking privacy rules isn’t the way to do it.

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