Most Australian consumers imagine that “the Privacy Act” is legislation intended to protect them from harm and unfair dealing by safeguarding their personal information. But my personal experiences and discussions with other consumers suggest that “the Privacy Act” is being invoked by some marketers and service providers as a justification for what often amounts to bullying and harassment.

At a relatively low level, there is growing consumer frustration. Typically, you wait in a telephone queue for a lengthy period only to find that a telco or energy utility or insurance company will not deal with you in relation to your service because the account is in your partner’s name (even if he/she uses the same surname as you). Express irritation and you are simply told “it’s the Privacy Act” – they’ll have to send your partner a form to sign to say that you are authorised to deal with the account on their behalf. Most people find this annoying but (after they’ve calmed down) agree that it’s at least well-intentioned if clumsy.

But far worse is the situation where “the Privacy Act” is actually being used to intimidate or bully consumers. Here’s a scenario that I’ve experienced, the likes of which others tell me has also happened to them.

I answer the phone at home and the caller says she’s from GIO Insurance and asks for my wife (who uses a different surname from mine). I ask why she’s calling and she tells me bluntly “it’s regarding motor vehicle insurance”.

To my knowledge, my wife doesn’t have car insurance with GIO so I ask if it concerns a current policy, seeking to establish that it’s not some kind of sales call. She says she’s not allowed to tell me that “because of the Privacy Act” and asks when my wife will be home or whether she can have a work number. As I would like to know the specific purpose of the call before I give out any personal information about my wife, I indicate simply that she is not available and suggest she deals with me and leaves a specific message.

Clearly looking at some electronic record on a screen in front of her, she asks me: “Are you Stephen Downes?” Immediately, the balance shifts – she has information that links me to my wife in her database, despite our different surnames, and I still don’t know why she’s calling. I experience a flicker of doubt and concern: it might be about an unpaid bill or perhaps a claim.

Nonetheless, I agree that I am Stephen Downes, upon which she asks for my date of birth. I tell her that I won’t give out any personal information until she tells me the specific purpose of her call. She replies – rudely – that if I’m not prepared to give her my date of birth, she will have to discontinue the call “because of the Privacy Act”.

Let’s just play that back a second: she calls my home, asks for my wife, knows that I’m her husband, has my name and date of birth linked to my wife’s records on her database but won’t tell me the nature of her business until I divulge even more personal details about my wife or myself.

Subsequent calls to GIO’s complaints area reveal that we don’t have a motor vehicle insurance policy with GIO at all. The call centre operator had made an error – she was actually calling about an overdue payment for home and contents insurance which it turned out had been received by GIO but not yet processed against our account.

The Privacy Act of 1988 and the private sector amendments of 2001 were supposed to be about protecting consumers from the harm that might come to them should their private information be misused. It’s ironic, then, that marketers and service providers can actually derive coercive power from information asymmetry that they justify in the name of the Privacy Act – or perhaps a mangled and one-sided interpretation of it.

We all feel disempowered and may be subject to unfair pressure when someone has information about us but we’re not allowed to know the extent of that information or how they obtained it. It’s a classic technique in interrogation and intimidation: “We know all about you, Mr Smith. We know where your wife works and where your kids go to school… and a whole lot more. Now tell us what we want to know.”

Marketers and service providers should be using information and their increasingly sophisticated information management tools to offer customers better products and better service, tailoring their offers to what the consumer will value most, but never to bully or intimidate.

Dr Stephen Downes lectures in the postgraduate advertising program in the School of Applied Communication at RMIT University and is principal of market research and brand strategy firm QBrand Consulting Pty Ltd

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