OPINION17 September 2009

Phishing for a solution to online research challenges


Day two of Esomar Congress finds our correspondent Manfred Mareck wrestling with issues of privacy, data security and confidentiality in online research. He also takes in a paper on best practices in interviewing children and gauges delegate response to a new charity fundraising initiative centred on online surveys.

Decision time. Should I listen to a paper entitled ‘Could I ask a few questions while you have sex on a park bench?’ Tempting, but in the end I opted for two alternative sessions: how to combat the increasing use of scams that trade on the reputation of genuine research and the issues concerning the interviewing of children.

David Stark

David Stark, TNS Canada

David Stark (TNS Canada) covered some of the problems researchers now face, especially when using the internet. New devices (USP drives, mobile phones with cameras) make IT security difficult.

It is also relatively easy these days for fraudsters to get private information from individuals through phishing, often under the disguise of reputable research companies. Participation in official Statistics Canada surveys is often legally compulsory and a number of fraudsters posing as Stats Canada exploit that. Such is the extent of the problem, agencies are now regularly posting warnings on their websites. MR companies in the USA are also routinely discouraging panel members from shedding their anonymity in chat rooms, while explaining to panel members how to protect themselves from phishing.

Meanwhile, the sharing culture of Web 2.0 causes additional problems. Confidential surveys can easily find themselves appearing on public sites, and are very difficult to remove once they do. The solution, according to Stark, is to post detailed terms and conditions and copyright notices, and insist that respondents read these (or at least tick a box to say they have). And if confidentiality is absolutely vital and all else fails, Stark suggests using more old-fashioned ways of collecting data.

The topic of research with children was the focus of a paper by Agnes Nairn (EM-Lyon Business School). The kids and youth market is huge – some $1.33 trillion is spent by or on behalf of children every year. Researchers who want to collect data from this market face a plethora of different, often contradictory codes of conduct (Esomar, DMA, Ofcom and MRS, but also from advertisers such as Coca-Cola). Nairn identified four major challenges that need to be addressed:

  1. Agree on clearly defined age levels when parental consent is required to interview a young person
  2. Agree on a system for verifying a child’s age and whether or not actual consent has been given
  3. Agree the status of cyber data and
  4. Ensure that parents and children always remain in control of their data

A culture clash

Liz Miller

Liz Miller, vice president, CMO Council

The session ended with what can best be described as a culture clash between Europe and the USA. Liz Miller, vice president of the CMO Council, talked with great gusto about the organisation’s latest initiative – setting up an opt-in global consumer panel. Recruitment is, at least in part, via huge databases of selected charities and respondents are incentivised by charitable donations financed by commercial companies, making non-profit organisations an integral part of this project.

Commercial companies (and MR specialists) can then access this global community. Using charitable donations as an incentive isn’t really anything new but the whole concept left many in the audience somewhat uneasy and some felt that the whole exercise was just as a ruse for companies to establish a charitable reputation in the guise of MR. Questioning the speaker was difficult, as her tactic was to cut people short in the middle of their questions and assure everybody repeatedly that “quite frankly, everything is just fine”. It all felt like a clash between somewhat uncritical and trusting American enthusiasm andEuropean scepticism. Good stuff!