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Is an Email Address Personally Identifiable Info?

  |  April 29, 2011   |  Comments

Organizations must protect customer email addresses. The alternative could end up being costly.

Should an email address be treated like a Social Security number and other sensitive personal information?

It's not, but a compelling case has been made by a key industry group. And its timing was prescient.

Last week, the Online Trust Alliance recommended companies give the same protection to customer email addresses they do to Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information (PII). The alliance, comprised of email service providers and other businesses, outlined other best practices for securing customer information against malicious attacks or accidental breaches.

Adopting stronger email security measures comes at a price. It requires undertaking new business processes and ensuring email records are stored in password-protected files and behind firewalls.

Online Trust Alliance Executive Director Craig Spiezle told me earlier this month that one of the more difficult processes involves determining who gets access to what information, or so-called access management and provisioning, within an organization.

But the cost of doing nothing could end up being more expensive for businesses.

Just look at what happened to the New York Yankees this week. The baseball club came under fire when a ticket rep sent an email blast with a spreadsheet attached. That document contained the names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of 20,000 season ticket accounts.

After paying between $1,000 to $20,000 for a season's pass to attend 81 games, customers deserve blue-chip service – and security - from this baseball club.

"Someone could have stolen this list and sold it," said Simms Jenkins, CEO of BrightWave Marketing, a marketing agency based in Atlanta.

Because the Yankees are so popular, he doubts the incident will hurt its reputation – or ticket sales. "For a second-tier team, this could hurt them a lot more," he said.

Or consider Sony. Its PlayStation network, which has 77 million members, was the target of a malicious attack. While customer credit card information was encrypted, personal information was not, according to the company. PBS Senior Correspondent Ray Suarez reported that the personal information included players' names, addresses, birth dates, email addresses, passwords, and log-in names.

This week, Kristopher Johns filed a federal lawsuit against Sony, alleging negligent data security practices and privacy violations, according to reports. Johns seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Sony.

The incidents followed a high-profile breach at Epsilon, a company that provides email marketing services for big brands like Best Buy and Capital One bank. Someone gained unauthorized entry to the service provider's email system, obtaining the names and/or email addresses of its customers' customers.

Before we learn about another misstep or breach, organizations must invest time and money to better protect customer information. And that includes email addresses.


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Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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