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Rising consumer concerns about privacy are confronting companies that plan to launch more extensive information-driven marketing programs.

Collection of personal information by businesses is more of a problem today than 10 years ago, according to more than half the respondents in a recent MasterCard International/Yankelovich Partners survey. Among the issues: incorrect reporting of information, an increase in junk mail and telemarketing, and unauthorized selling of information to other companies. The May 1994 survey polled 507 respondents; results were announced this year.

The study also found:

About 90% of respondents wanted to be consulted before personal or family-related information was supplied to third parties and wanted to choose the precise information to be divulged.

Three-quarters agreed "we need to find ways to stop business and government from collecting so much information about the average person."

Independent findings from a 1994 Louis Harris & Associates poll for Equifax echo the troubling MasterCard results: 53% agreed technology had "almost gotten out of control;" 80% did not agree that government can generally be trusted to look after consumers' interests, and 84% said they were either very or somewhat concerned about threats to personal privacy. That last percentage is the highest since the question was first asked in 1978.

Given that consumers are more familiar with information technology and its applications, said John Ford, VP-privacy and external affairs, Equifax, Atlanta, "there was an expectation they would begin to see.... that the benefits greatly outweigh privacy concerns. The fact that 84% are very or somewhat concerned, up from 79% the year before, is somewhat surprising."

Not all of the news is bad. The MasterCard survey also found respondents were more willing to disclose personal information in exchange for something in return-and that the incentives did not always have to be purely monetary. For example, about 41% said they would divulge more personal information in return for better protection against fraud (see accompanying table).

And close analysis of the MasterCard survey points to an intriguing new corporate role with regard to information: the role of editor.

"As `editors,' companies will ensure consumers are getting more information about things that interest and benefit them, and less on topics outside that realm," said Watts Wacker, managing partner and futurist, Yankelovich Partners. "The privacy issue is no longer exclusively about protection; it is about how to best utilize the information that is available is about making sure you get more of what is important to you."

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