ICO clamps down on ‘text pests’ using business data to proposition customers

Regulator launches online service for people to report instances of employees of organisations taking individuals’ data gained from business transactions and using it for romantic, sexual or otherwise personal purposes

The Information Commissioner’s Office is seeking to clamp down on so-called ‘text pests’ that take information provided by individuals in a business context and use it to send unsolicited personal messages, including sexual propositions.

A study undertaken by the data watchdog found that one in three respondents had been victims of this illegal practice. The regulator’s research also found that younger people are more likely to be unaware that being sent such messages is against the law.

The ICO has launched an online tool through which it is encouraging citizens to report their experience of text pests, including details of the company or person in questions, how and when they were contacted – by phone, email, SMS, or messaging app – and the volume and content of communications. Victims are also able to provide information on how the experience affected them, as well as any action taken by the individual or the firm. All details can be provided anonymously.

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Submissions are open until 15 September, after which the data watchdog will look to use people’s experiences and reports to better understand the issue, before “contacting some of the major customer-facing employers in the country to emphasise their legal responsibilities as well as to learn more about what safeguards they have in place”.

Emily Keaney, ICO deputy commissioner for regulatory policy said: “People have the right to order a pizza, or give their email for a receipt, or have shopping delivered, without then being asked for sex or a date a little while later. They have a right to know that when they hand over their personal information, that it will not then be used in ways that they would not be comfortable with. But our research today shows a disturbingly high number of people, particularly young people, are falling prey to these text pests. There may be, amongst some, an outdated notion that to use someone’s personal details given to you in a business context to ask them out is romantic or charming. Put quite simply, it is not – it is against the law.”

She added: “If you are running a customer facing business, you have a responsibility to protect the data of your customers, including from your employees misusing it. We are writing to major businesses, including food and parcel delivery, to remind them that there are no excuses, and there can be no looking the other way. We’ve launched this call for evidence today because we want to hear directly from the public how this misuse of personal information has affected them. As the data regulator, we can then use this to inform our work protecting the public.”

Sam Trendall

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