Dial U For Unformation (Part One)

Unformation: it looks a lot like information but is not information. It is not information because it is wrong. There is a lot of it in the world. Some people dedicate their lives to spreading it. They may do so in ignorance, because it looks like information. Big companies run unformation systems without realizing it. Unformation is worth nothing, but may cost a lot.

I do not think you can do my kind of job unless you think information is a privilege. You have to work hard for information every day. That means you have to be sceptical. Do not assume what looks like information is information – it may be unformation. Which is why it is distressing to see big businesses failing over and over again to sort the one from the other. In recent weeks two UK telcos have come under the spotlight for running unformation systems.

On Wednesday, the Information Commissioner found Carphone Warehouse and its offshoot Talk Talk in breach of the Data Protection Act. The remarkable thing about this is that the Information Commissioner lacks proactive investigatory powers. That makes them dependent on information from other sources, like complaining customers, to find out about breaches. Given that compliance with most of the obligations in the Data Protection Act simply cannot be determined by any customer, you have to be very sloppy to do something so obviously wrong that the customer finds out about it. On top of that, the average customer is not going to pursue an issue if their supplier responds appropriately, promptly and politely to their complaint. So Carphone Warehouse must have been very sloppy indeed to make obvious mistakes and then do too little to pacify angry customers. If you take a look at the detail of what they did wrong, it reads like an unformation horror story:

  • Subject access request: Failed to meet their legal obligations to provide information held about people on request, despite cashing the cheques that customers paid them as an admin fee.
  • Accuracy and Fairness: Set up accounts using incorrect details (name, address and bank details), which in some instances had been obtained from old contract or purchase data.
  • Security: Some customers saw confidential personal data of other customers when logging on to their online account. Some received emails containing data confidential to other customers.
  • Accuracy: Held inaccurate data and disclosed it to credit reference agencies and debt collection agencies. Failed to amend inaccurate data until instructed to do so by the Commissioner.

Doubtless the corporate spin-meisters will say they are very sorry and this is an isolated problem which they are working hard to rectify blah blah… or they will say nothing at all and hope it will all blow over. Such is the nature of unformation in the unformation age. I could not find anything relevant on the Carphone Warehouse website, though it is full of upbeat “news” on how they are giving away laptops and have rising profits. If you want to see the detail yourself, the only place is to look is the enforcement notices for Carphone Warehouse and Talk Talk. But I can summarize what it says: they should spend more of those profits on treating customer data with respect.

If you do not believe that business unformation rarely gets turned into public information, just review the history of the other big unformation story in UK telcos: how Virgin Media was unable to give reliable data to the emergency services. More on that in the next blog.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.