College sophomore Vincent Chan knows he can expect a 9 am. wake-up call to his dormitory room several times a semester. And he doesn't even have to ask for it. That's because the free service is being provided by an MBNA telemarketer more than willing to extol the virtues of the Ben Franklin-faced Visa card that Chan doesn't want and certainly doesn't need. "I say thanks and then hang up," Chan explained. "It's kind of like 'I'm sleeping now -- leave me alone.'" Not likely.
A good 'grade' Like hundreds of schools nationwide, Penn is also affiliated with a few large businesses -- such as PNC and MBNA -- where student and faculty directory information seems to be sold more for the green than for loyalty to the Red and Blue. Take, for instance, Penn's partnership with Wilmington, Del.-based MBNA. A 1997 deal with the affinity credit card provider established an official Penn Visa card. It also allowed the University to rake in a $4 million lump-sum payment and at least $200,000 in royalty and licensing fees each additional year. As part of the deal, the University provides MBNA with a current list of student, faculty, staff and alumni contacts. The information provided includes names, addresses and phone numbers, when available. Other terms expressly forbid MBNA from relaying information to any other institution or party. Still, Business Services Vice President Leroy Nunery, who represents Penn in the MBNA partnership, maintains the University technically does not sell its directory information. "There is no sale of the list," Nunery said. "It may be a matter of definition but if I am selling a name to someone, [it would be like,] Here is the name of Person X, and now give me the money.' "That's not the same as saying, here are the names of the people who fall into a certain population.' There's no certainty that a consumer will act positively to engage themselves with MBNA." Still, including directory information as part of the financial arrangement has drawn fire from both students and faculty. "It's a sketchy way of getting around selling information," Engineering sophomore Jason Friess said. "Penn is a school, and schools shouldn't be profiting from their own students." And Medical School Professor Stuart Moss was upset after an MBNA telemarketer interrupted a family meal this summer. "I kind of resent that Penn is kind of willy-nilly, giving my name and home phone number and getting paid for it," he said.
List lackeys But don't expect Penn to change its partnership with MBNA -- or any other organizations -- anytime soon. "It's not inconceivable for the University to share [directory] information in the future," White said. And even if the University were to refuse MBNA its lists, it wouldn't stop other firms from accessing Penn directory information. That's because unlike MBNA, many firms that use direct marketing don't deal directly with universities. Instead, companies such as Capital One and Discover Card rent the one-time use of names and phone numbers -- sorted by college, age, major and even tuition level -- from direct marketing specialty firms like Educational List Service and American Student List. Although both these companies refused to divulge how they collect data, industry observers say they use a variety of well-honed techniques to gather information. Most often, observers say, direct marketing firms pay the universities directly for the data -- a practice Penn officials flatly deny-- or purchase previously compiled lists from phone and credit card companies that are not honor-bound to retain the information. But more recently, lists have been generated through other means. "It's been known that companies can get a hold of a student directory," Ansert said. "It may be a labor-intensive process, but they will scan them in." In fact, many Penn officials say the largest privacy threat is caused by the trading and sale of student, faculty and staff and alumni directories. Both Alumni Relations and Penn Student Agencies try to prevent the dissemination of directories by requiring identification before giving out the books. Moreover, there is a trade-off between the convenience of quickly accessing of the information and the potential threat of it winding up in the wrong hands. And most students say they are willing to take the risk. But others contend there is more Penn can do to ensure the security of directory information. Even Nunery knows the University's practice of providing lists to outside groups will have to change since people have recently become more sensitive to their privacy rights -- and those early morning phone calls. "The bigger issue is how does a large institution like ours, who has an increasing need for capital, get that capital," he said. "And it shouldn't be on the backs of individuals who don't have control."Comments powered by Disqus
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