The Anti-Choice Robodialler–some thoughts

The Intro

Robodialling, autodialling, power dialling. Call it what you will. It is the use of computers and computer telephony integration to save the tired fingers of call centre workers and turn the job into a battery farm of talk… pause.. talk.

I know. I’ve worked with them. Heck, I designed the backend data management and reporting processes for one of the first big installations of one in Ireland back in the late 1990s. It was fun.

I also learned a lot about how they work and some of the technical limitations and capabilities of them. Such as the lag that can happen when there is no agent available to take a call so the person dialled hears noise and static. Or the fact that you can trigger the dump of a recorded message either as a broadcast or based on the machine’s interpretation of whether it’s hit an answering machine or not (at least on the snazzy RoboDial9000 we were putting in).

And I also remember the grizzled CRM and Direct Marketing consultant who was helping advise on best practice for using it telling the management team:

“Don’t. For the love of all that is sacred don’t. Doing that shit just gets our industry a really bad name because it freaks people out.”

Today – Fallout and penalties

Today I’m trying to reengage brain after a night on twitter helping to advise people how to register their complaints about the use of a Robodialler to push anti-choice messages to unsuspecting households. The DPC is now getting up to 3 complaints every 5 minutes on this.

Each complaint could carry a €5000 penalty on summary conviction. That is the tricky bit as this requires evidence gathering etc. This could take time. But the DPC has time available to them to conduct investigations and bring prosecutions. And if it is a case that this is an individual acting on their own behalf, the DPC has the powers to enter domestic premises to conduct searches and can levy a significant personal penalty of up to €50,000.

Oh.. and if the dialler is in the UK the maximum penalty per offence is £500k and the DPC and ICO do talk to each other. A lot. They’re co-hosting an event in Newry at the end of the month.

The unintended consequences

My thoughts now turn to the unexpected consequences this robodialling will have.

  1. All future market research or polling that may be done on this topic by phone is borked and broken. People will be suspicious, even when the nice man from the polling agency ticks all the boxes and explains who they are etc.
  2. There will be a wave of “false positive” complaints to the DPC arising from any phone polling on this topic (for the reason outlined above). This will tax the resources of the DPC, and will tax the resources of market research and polling organisations as they work to deal with complaints and investigations etc.

The impact of this on debate is that the published results of any polling will be distorted and will be potentially unreliable as barometers of public opinion. Face to face field work results will likely be less tainted by the robodialler experience but will be a LOT more expensive and time consuming for media and other organisations to run. So there may be less of them.

The dialler incident will tie up resources in the ODPC that would otherwise be spent dealing with the wide range of complaints they get every day, driving investigations, conducting audits, and managing the large number of existing open cases they are working through.

22 staff. In total. 25% of their staff regularly being tied up dealing with Facebook alone. With a mandate that covers ANY non-domestic processing of personal data. (by comparison the Financial Services Regulatory Authority has three times the number of staff at Director level alone).

Another consequence of this is that we might get a little debate about how this is no different from the placard waving and leaflet shoving of the Anti-choice camp historically. But it is different. Disturbingly different. If I am walking on the street with my daughter and a leaflet or picture is thrust in her face, I can turn away, walk another route, or some other strategy to help shield my daughter from disturbing imagery.

Last night I read of parents whose small children or young tweenagers answered the call and listened and have been upset by the calls.

The wrap up

I worked in a telemarketing business early in my career. Even then (nearly 2 decades ago) we were cautious about ringing people in the evenings. It is an invasion of the private family time of individuals, an abrupt interruption of what Louis Brandeis called “the right to be left alone”. No recorded messages were left. Human interaction was key to ensuring we only continued to encroach where welcomed, and requests to be removed from lists were treated respectfully. “Do Not Call in Evenings” was a call outcome code in the robodialler that prevented that number ever being called again (at least in theory when the software worked correctly and the teams did their jobs right).

To tread on that right to be left alone to ram a pre-recorded message into the ears of an unsuspecting and unidentified audience belies an arrogance and ignorance on the part of those who thought it would be a good idea to choose to commit a criminal offence to push their message, ignoring both the law and the choices people had made with respect to their own personal data privacy (a fundamental right of all EU citizens).


If you have received a call from a robodialler with an automated message or where the caller did not identify themselves to you you should register a complaint with the Data Protection Commissioner

Investigations can be complex and it may be impossible to verify who to prosecute, but by registering the complaint you can help build the case against people who are acting illegally.

Try to find the number that called you (in your phone’s call log). Note the date and time of the call. If the number is blocked, include that fact in your complaint. While numbers are blocked from being presented to you, the phone network will still know who called you and having the date and time you received the call will potentially enable ComReg and the Data Protection Commissioner to request data from the telecommunications companies to trace calling numbers. They may subsequently require you to give consent to accessing your phone records as part of their investigation but only to identify the number that phoned you on that date/time from the network call logs that are generated.

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