Responsibility falls on consumers when privacy is an issue

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2001

You've probably received at least one "privacy notice" in the mail, more likely you've been inundated with such notices. But if you're anything like 41 percent of Americans, then you don't remember getting them. Or, maybe you're part of the 22 percent group who've seen them, but haven't read them and very likely tossed them with the junk mail.

Give yourself an "A" if you've read them. Proceed to graduate school if you understood what you read.

Beginning this year, under the federal Financial Services Modernization Act, banks and other financial institutions must inform consumers about their privacy rights.

The act requires that consumers be allowed to say no to -- or opt out of -- the sharing of personal information that financial institutions collect on their customers.

Although the notices are supposed to be "reasonably understandable," in most cases, they are not. Sentences are long and complex. Some firms try to wow their customers with their privacy policies, but instead ended up burying them in you-know-what. One analysis showed the notices required a third- or fourth-year college reading level -- not the junior-high reading level recommended for the general public.

A sample of what the notices contain:

n "Our Policy applies to all personally identifiable financial information about you that is obtained by [Company Z] in connection with providing a consumer financial product of service for personal, family or household purposes ('personal information').

n "We maintain physical, electronic and procedural safeguards that comply with federal regulations to guard our nonpublic personal information."

n "If you choose not to receive such solicitations from unaffiliated third parties, you may instruct [Company X] not to disclose your nonpublic personal information (see below)."

Who has the time or patience to wade through this stuff? Trouble sleeping? Just pull out your most recent privacy notice for a little bed-time reading. You'll be snoring in no time, unless, of course, the whole idea of having to do something to protect your privacy sends your blood pressure soaring.

It does ours. Consumers should not have to "opt out" of having information shared. They should be able to assume no information about them will be sold, shared or whatever unless they give their permission for a company to do so -- and know they they are giving their permission to do so.

Those people who have no problem with having their "nonpublic personal information" being shared with others should be the ones calling or filling in forms or jumping through hoops -- not the other way around.

The low opt-out rate -- some say less than 1 percent -- should not be seen as an endorsement of information sharing. More likely, it's an indication people don't understand the burden to protect their privacy is on them, not the companies they do business with.

The companies, of course, say the information-sharing helps their customers. As one firm put it: "Information is important for meeting your needs and providing consistent service quality. Information is also the source of new ideas. The more we understand about you, the better we can suggest products and services, create new opportunities for you, and help you manage your financial assets."

Businesses and the general public are operating on information overload. It's one of the reasons the privacy notices are so easy to ignore. People are overwhelmed with mail -- electronic and paper -- faxes, phone calls and access to more facts, figures and stuff than they can possibly use. Everyone needs their own personal secretary and, it would seem, attorney to keep it sorted and understood.

Alaskans are known to value their privacy. They should be alert to the privacy notices they are receiving, and understand that if they don't want personal information shared they need to do something; if they don't, they are essentially telling financial institutions it's OK to share that information. In the long run, the law needs to be changed in favor of consumers' best interests, not business practices.

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