Regional Animal Services of King County’ use of marketing data to send out pet-licensing reminders to possible pet owners is raising questions about privacy.

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When Barbara Twadell received a letter from Regional Animal Services of King County (RASKC) last week reminding her that a license is required to keep pets, she was puzzled.

Twadell doesn’t own a pet. Her dog died five or maybe six years ago, long “enough that I couldn’t place the number.” She had notified the county at the time.

She found the letter peculiar.

“On the outside, it’s stamped ‘Time sensitive. Open immediately,’ and it’s got a pink return address, which usually means something is overdue in payment,” she said.

The writing was terse, “threatening” even, Twadell said.

“The following is a reminder notice that King County Code Title 11, Section 04.030 and City Municipal Codes require a King County pet license for all dogs and cats kept, harbored or maintained in your jurisdiction,” reads the letter’s opening address. In bold, the first paragraph concludes: “Failure to license could result in fines of up to $250 per pet.”

Twadell called a number on the notice and asked why she received the letter.

Grocery-store club cards are tracked, she was told. Twadell recalled buying a dog toy for a friend’s pet and wondered, was Big Brother scanning her grocery list?

Not exactly.

“We used direct-mail lists,” said RASKC Manager Gene Mueller. “The same way a pet store or veterinarian would.”

Here’s what that means: The county hired a Seattle mailing company named Lacy & Par, which retrieved a list of prospective pet owners from another data firm.

The county took that list of possible pet owners, compared it against an internal database of licensed pets, and — voilà! — had a list of Fido lovers who might be stiffing the county. Out went the letters.

What Twadell did to end up on the list is still a mystery — even to King County.

“However they commercially associate a person with a lifestyle, I really couldn’t tell you how the direct-mail companies do that,” Mueller said.

The letters raise questions about privacy and how governments buy and use information tracked by marketers.

Marketing lists are tossed around as frequently as fish at Pike Place Market, experts said.

“It’s a big industry,” said Jonathan Zhang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington. “You can essentially buy a list for any kind of demographic.”

Zhang said online browsing, loyalty-card programs, magazine subscriptions and charitable donations are among myriad sources of this marketing data.

“Everything you do online … these actions leave a trail,” Zhang said.

Data aggregators make inferences, right or wrong, based on this data, and fit people into profiles.

“Oftentimes (marketers) are buying a list that’s not very reliable … just like any product, there’s some good products and some bad products,” he said.

For Twadell, the idea that marketers had somehow collected her information was unsurprising. But the government’s interest in that data was disconcerting.

“I like, even less, government having that information … because the government, as we’ve seen in this letter, seems to use it in a threatening way. Marketing people, that’s the nature of the world we live in,” she said.

Twadell said she supports the county’s effort to license more pets, but to her, the letter seemed to say: We’re onto you, we know you have a pet, and you’d better register it.

“To me, it brings another question: What if some other county agency wanted to do the same thing? … What might they collect: Gun information? Weapons? Not that I care that much about that, but some people do. …”

No precedent

Other government agencies already use purchased marketing data to target constituents, said Justin Marlowe, a professor of public finance at the UW.

“I wouldn’t say it’s common,” he said. “But I’m not hearing about it for the first time.”

Fewer landline phones and rules around social media make it harder for governments to get in touch directly, Marlowe said. Expect more governments to embrace consumer data-marketing, he said. But that’s a balancing act.

“People these days want government to be real-time and responsive and high-tech and engaged. Local government doesn’t always have the tools to do that,” Marlowe said. “For local governments like the county, to leverage these tools is a natural next step. It’s fair to think we’ll see a lot more of this. It’s what citizens are demanding — and yet they also want government to ensure privacy and security.”

Mueller said RASKC began using direct mailing lists in 2012. Last year, the agency spent $35,192 to send nearly 74,845 letters (it also sends letters to new residents). The mailings generated $117,786 in pet-licensing revenue, according to figures provided by the county.

“It seems to be a good return on investment,” Mueller said.

RASKC has nearly 109,000 pets registered in its jurisdiction of unincorporated King County and more than two dozen contract cities, but the county’s estimates show just 23 percent of pet owners license their animals. Hundreds of thousands are yet to be registered.

Mueller said he understood privacy concerns, but said the “rented” data was limited in scope and cannot be kept.

“We don’t know they (residents) have three cats, named Spike, Zeke and Bones. All we know is they have an address to send the information,” he said.

Plus, the approach keeps the county from sending someone to your house.

“Part of this is in response to concerns regarding door-to-door canvassing, the imposition of having someone knock on your door during the weekend,” Mueller said.

Neighbors react

Criticisms came in plenty on the Nextdoor social-media site, after Twadell posted about her letter and phone call in her neighborhood network.

“There was a lot of George Orwell being thrown around and [people saying] ‘1984’ was only 30 years off,” said Trevor Rain-Water, who lives near Twadell.

Rain-Water’s two dogs are licensed in his wife’s name, but he received a letter. His chief complaint was with the letter’s tone (“it basically threatens you with a $250 fine”) and that taxpayers’ money was being spent to purchase their consumer information.

Zhang, the marketing professor, said King County likely could have avoided complaints had it been more transparent.

“King County should tell them where the data comes from,” Zhang said. “If you know where the list comes from, then people wouldn’t be as angry … It’s not like the government created something out of the blue; they just bought the list from people who already had your information.“

A friendlier tone would help, too, Zhang said. RASKC explained the value of licensing pets in the letter — the licensing fees fund animal shelters and provide medical services for sick or injured pets, and first-time lost pets registered with the county are returned to your home for free — but readers like Rain-Water were initially struck by the “almost accusatory” tone.

Mueller said the county received several complaints.

“I’m certainly sensitive and accept the criticism that if they don’t have a pet, it can seem authoritarian,” Mueller said. “We’re already starting to work on a recrafted letter.”

Perhaps they’ll have less bark next time.