How My Name Was Changed for Me—the Ethics of Data Collection in the Age of GDPR

This post was written by Per Caroe, Head of Sales and Business Development at iPost.

For ethnic reasons, my family decided two names were perfectly fine for me and my sister when we were born. Three names? “Nah, we’re good. Also, can we find a short name that’s Danish and starts with a P?” When your parents are named Peter and Poula, this seems like a clever idea. “We’ll all be able to use the same initials on luggage,” my mother once quipped. (Note: There were never any monogramed initials.)

Fast forward many years to 1992. I started dating my now wife and we decided to go camping. We needed a tent and off to JC Penney’s we went. (It was the early ‘90s, mind you.) We found a nice two-bedroom massive thing with aluminum tubes. When it came time to pay, we decided to take advantage of the 20% discount we’d receive if we would only sign up for a store credit card. “20%! Are you crazy? Give me that form.” In a moment of pique, I decided to throw in a middle initial to see what the impact on my mail would be. This was before widespread email adoption and physical mail was the primary venue for mass marketing.

Sure enough, several months later, the Per L Caroe letters started to arrive. It was brilliant. I knew anything with an L (and 95% of the rest of the mail) could go straight into the recycling bag. All was right with the world until two odd things happened recently:

  1. I applied for a new credit card with the bank I’ve done business for 20 years, and I got the card the day I was leaving for a multi-week international vacation. A card for, you guessed it, Per L Caroe. I, of course, promptly called my bank. They argued that I was impersonating someone else before believing I was me and that I did, in fact, know my own name. The bank offered to send a new card in several days, which was no good as I was about to jump in a Wingz for the airport. Long story short, I was spending money using a credit card with no one’s name. (There are two other Per Caroes in the world. They are both in Denmark and neither of them have an L as a middle initial or name.)
  2. Then I was hired at iPost in January. Like many companies do these days, they ran a background check on me. Per L Caroe came back as having great credit, no convictions and a detailed work history that matched my own.

I had, in fact, become Per L Caroe.

Why do I tell this amusing story? Because I think we tend to forget about the humans that represent each data point in our massive databases. We forget there is a story behind each of their names. When we “augment” or “backfill” the names they’ve given us, like when we look to third parties to complete our data, we augment that reality. There are three of us in the world with same name. I’ve received business inquiries for Kenyan Airlines and connected it to one of the other Per’s. But mine is a small universe of possibilities. However, when we look at my friend Steve Johnson who has a common name, we are inundated with possibilities. If we isolate those living in our county, I give up and stop counting in the 80s.

So how do we manage to be ethical and make sure we have all the data we can without augmenting reality? That is at the heart of why the EU has imposed GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation seeks to create a harmonized data protection law across the EU (and by extension the world) while aiming to give control of personal information back to the people, whilst imposing strict rules on those hosting and processing this data.

How your firm decides to treat this data will be a defining issue over the next 10 years. As an old email hand, I suggest treading carefully but also be bold. Be willing to check back with the people with whom you are communicating. Make them part of the process. “Hey Per, is this you? Do want us to add this new address? Do you mind if we augment this address in Maui to the things we know about you?”

These are tough issues to navigate, but it will be much easier than having a customer care rep tell a good customer they’re lying about who they are a couple hours before a flight because reality will be reality and you won’t inadvertently change anyone’s name.