Dear Intarweb, please provide ethics check

Earlier this evening I received a marketing email from a company I had never heard of, for an event I wasn’t interested in, to an email address I had only ever given to a differently, seemingly-unrelated company that we shall call Company U.

When this sort of thing happens it may be an indication that Company U has leaked their customer address database or else decided to sell the contact details on, so I’d sometimes follow it up instead of just opting out and consigning the address to the bitbucket forever.

In this case as many times before, I decided to have a whinge on twitter about it first.

Anyway to cut a long story short they got in touch, and it turns out that this marketing email has been sent by Company S. Someone from Company S emailed me to apologise and to remove my address from their list.

I asked this person how they obtained my email address that had only been sent to Company U, and they admitted that they used to work for Company U and that their “rampant CRM system” had somehow “indexed all of my PERSONAL emails”.

Now, from my point of view, this would actually suggest that this person has likely taken a database of customers of Company U with him to his new employer.

So, Internauts, do I have a duty to shop this guy to his former employer Company U? Or am I just frothing in my nerdrage here at the terrible inconvenience of being sent a piece of email I don’t want? Is the man a menace, or should I just get over it?

5 thoughts on “Dear Intarweb, please provide ethics check

  1. I would tend to agree with Adrian – _both_ companies are in breach of the Data Protection Act. Reporting it to Company U isn’t a bad idea either, so that they can plug the hole in their security.

  2. I don’t think this is uncommon at all amongst sales people, they generally seem to consider their contact list to be their personal property, not that of the company they work for. It used to be little black books, now it’s more likely to be an Outlook address book they export before they leave.

    Illegal? Almost certainly, but on the scale of things I’d put it more about the level of doing 40 mph in a 30 zone – you should probably get a fine, but not go to jail for it..

    The question of whether your email address alone is private information is an interesting one in general, after all, you “give” it to someone for them to email you it. I don’t do a legal disclaimer saying “You may not reuse this email address for any other purpose” every time I say out loud to a friend or colleague “It’s ewan at longwords dot org”.

    1. Ewan,

      I think I would be less annoyed if this person was someone I actually corresponded with at Company U and who was then corresponding with me in his new role at Company S. But in reality I only sent one email to Company U many years ago asking for a quote, don’t recall ever corresponding with this guy, and now he has no knowledge or interest in me individually – he has just added me to his new company’s marketing list. They don’t even appear to be in the same industry.

      So it’s not like he has invested any effort in cultivating a business relationship which I might feel he was entitled to take with him. It feels more like he has appropriated contact details that he wasn’t entitled to.

      Still wondering whether to do something or let it go! But these responses are helping, thanks.

  3. Isn’t this similar to the moral quandary that we have in the software industry around proprietary library code? Copying code from one employer to the next is illegal and wrong…. but what about reimplementing the same thing for a new employer? That’s “experience” and the 2nd or 3rd time it’s done it probably only takes a tenth of the time of the first attempt.

    In both industries it’s morally reprehensible and some people take more liberties than others, but everyone knows it goes on. When you hire a sales person, you often do it for their wealth of contacts. There’s certainly a culture of “Don’t ask, don’t tell and definitely don’t get caught”.

    What would you do if you caught someone doing it in the software industry?

    (I do not condone stealing library code or contacts databases.)

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