Information and Other Risky Business

Those of you who perceive information management as a rather dry affair should examine the strange case of Gabriella Nagy.

Ms. Nagy had a cellphone plan with Rogers. Her husband subscribed to Rogers TV cable service, and decided to add Internet and home phone services. “No problem,” said Rogers, who were only too happy to oblige. “In fact, we see that your wife already has a cellphone plan, so to save you money (and make things more efficient), we’re going to bundle your cellphone, TV and cable services under one account, and send you one big, juicy consolidated bill!”

Some time later, the husband received the first invoice, which included a detailed listing of all his wife’s calls. “That’s strange,” he noticed while perusing the listing, “there seems to be several rather long phone calls to one number.” He called the number, and discovered, much to his dismay, that it belonged to a man who was having an affair with the husband’s wife. (The man having the affair was also married.)

After discovering the affair, the husband promptly left his wife, who became so depressed that she lost her job. In May of 2010, she sued Rogers for $600,00 for breach of privacy, claiming that their invoicing process ruined her marriage and destroyed her life.

In informational design and management terms, this occurrence is sometimes referred to as an “oops”.

It’s hard to know where to begin with all this. On the one hand, Rogers could have taken more care to advise Nagy that her account was about to be consolidated with another, resulting in a shared bill. On the other hand, to blame a communications company for a failed marriage is quite a stretch. Where would the lawsuits end? What about someone who simply uses a cellphone to yell obscenities at another person? Is the cellphone company liable for providing the medium for the message?

This case is similar to one faced by an airline years ago. To promote business, the airline offered a “fly your spouse for free” program. Loving husbands could take their wives on dream vacations, at no extra cost for the second ticket.

The program was quite successful, and being good corporate citizens, the airlines sent thank you letters to all the couples who participated: letters that many of the wives would open (since it was addressed to them and their husband) and read, and who would then wonder aloud: “Gee, I don’t remember flying recently with my husband.” For it turns out that many husbands did not travel with their wives, but with other assorted female companions.

Oops.

Information development and delivery, much like life, is a balance between security and convenience. The moment you create information, you are also creating risk:

  • risk that the information is incorrect
  • risk that the user will not interpret the information correctly
  • risk that you are exposing the user to information that they should not be exposed to

However, should you decide not to include the information, you are taking another risk: that you have withheld information that the user really did require.

There is no school, no program, and no teacher who can instruct you on how to always strike the right balance. Each instance has to be judged on its merits. Whether Rogers or the wife acted immorally is irrelevant. The fact is they are now both embroiled in a costly and very public legal battle. Many other philandering cellphone users are now quite worried that they will be exposed.

When her family’s accounts were bundled, a simple automated email sent to Ms. Nagy could have saved her (and Rogers) much grief:

Dear Ms. Nagy:

Please be advised that your household has requested additional services. These will be bundled under one invoice, which will include a detailed list of your calls. However, if you would like this list to be mailed separately to you, please call us within the next 7 business days so that we can update our mailing records.

(This should keep you out of trouble with your husband as you pursue your illicit affair with your hot lover, whom we have been tracking in real time. However, for a nominal “filtering fee” of only $499, we with withhold this information from your husband.)

Better still, there should have been an opt-in option to have her call details included in the master bill. If no action was taken, the call details list would continue to be sent to her directly.

Yes, Ms. Nagy is ultimately responsible for her downfall. However, Rogers and all those who create and disseminate information also have a responsibility to avoid informational disasters such as these by striking the right balance between disclosing and screening out sensitive information.

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