Reasonable use of personal data

I had to place an obituary in the Straits Times recently. SPH offers an online service where you can use their tool to design the obituary and make payment, all without going down to their office.

I decided to use the service. I entered my personal details and contact information into the first page of the application and clicked next to proceed to the second page where I started designing the obituary. Midway through the process, I realised that I did not have complete information of all the descendants and thus decided to close the tab and redo the application later.

About 10 minutes after I closed the page, I received a call from SPH. Clare from SPH asked me why I had stopped midway through the application and if I encountered any technical difficulties. I was immediately creeped out. How did SPH know? After I had the chance to collect my thoughts, I realised that I had entered my personal details on the first page and checked a box allowing them to use the contact information entered. SPH had someone monitoring the page in real time and called people with incomplete applications.

Granted, what SPH did was most probably legal, I checked the box allowing them to use the information for "conducting market research for statistical, profiling and statistical analysis for the improvement of services". However, I believe what they did deviated from reasonable expectations on the use of that data. I would expect that they only contact users who have fully submitted the entire application. If they really wanted to follow up on incomplete applications, they should also have used a less intrusive means of communication e.g. email, especially since this is only a sales lead, and I am not a paying customer yet. It is widely known that such data is usually collected and used to improve website design, the industry uses terms like "drop-off rate", "conversions" and "funnels". However, companies are usually more discreet and do not directly call up the users. With the media revolution going on, SPH is probably hard up for cash. Nevertheless, resorting to such hard sell tactics leave people with a bad impression.

Imagine if you were shopping at a supermarket and while paying, the cashier embarrasses you by enquiring why you put away the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream and picked up the house brand one instead. The more discreet way would be to email you a coupon at the end of the day with a discount for the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream. At least, the customer would not be so blatantly confronted with the fact that the supermarket was surveilling his every move in real time.

From a security perspective, imagine what mischief could be done. You could fill up the contact information of someone you are not particularly fond of. In about 10 minutes, that poor sod is going to receive a confusing call from SPH asking him about placing an obituary.

Eventually, I ended up using their service as there is no viable alternative for placing obituaries. SPH also ended up using the data in an expected and reasonable manner. They called me up to confirm the layout and informed me that it would be published in the next day's papers. Thinking back, it is rather sad that someone probably spent a few years studying mass communication just to end up in a job doing layouts for obituaries.