Threading the Needle: Ethics and the Business of Data – Data Economy

In an age when the business world runs on the fuel of data, it’s not surprising that it is considered an intrinsic asset to organisations across the world. It is also fundamental in driving new technologies, such as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), and there’s no doubt that data will sit at the heart of future revelations. Why then, is it still so frequently managed like a bi-product?

After all, those wells of information could dry up if companies fail to take into consideration the value and impact of personal information to individuals.

Undoubtedly, GDPR cast a spotlight on the importance of the ethical use of data. For many, this formed a step change in not only how they stored personal data within the business, but how they used it and what information was shared with their clients. However, despite its growing importance, the responsibility of data management rarely sits at the top.

If and when it does reach the boardroom, conversations around data and GDPR are treated as a compliance issue, rather than an ethical one. Boundaries are still being pushed and companies are still unclear on what they can and can’t do.

Businesses must therefore get to grips with these issues as failing to do so could leave individuals reluctant to share their personal information and potentially resulting in the company not having the data it needs to operate or function fully. So, how can businesses approach data in a more ethical way?

A new approach to data use

The idea of information ethics extends beyond the concepts of fair dealing into the information space and provides the foundation for building trust with individuals regarding the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information.

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The first step in ethical data management is to understand the different aspects of building trust and the concerns individuals might have regarding handing over their personal data. People tend to view allowing an organisation to have their personal information as a risk because they must rely on that organisation to protect and safeguard it.

Often, people don’t have a clear view of how their data will be consumed and processed, and what will happen with their personal information, which may lead to some individuals refusing to give up their personal data altogether. Businesses must therefore take a clear view on the issues of how personal data is being stored, managed and used, in order to maintain trust with consumers.

Yet, while the subject of privacy is a board-level and senior management risk issue, barely half of organisations have adequate controls in place. To change that, it is vital that the message of data privacy, the support for controls throughout an enterprise and the organisation’s stance on the ethical use of data comes from the top.

As organisations begin to look beyond compliance to drive competitiveness through the governance of personal information, the issues of trust and ethics pertaining to that information become more crucial to the success of the business.

More businesses are beginning to treat personal information as a critical asset like they would treat money and are appointing senior people to lead the governance and ethics roles. For instance, some businesses now have a Data Protection Officer, Trust and Ethics Officer or Chief Ethics Officer to ensure they not only maintain compliance but also maintain trust.

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The creation of these roles sends a strong message that trust, and by extension, privacy, security, and ethics, are at the forefront of the culture of an organisation. But more than that, this approach moves the discussion on from businesses purely being interested in being compliant, to focusing more on operating ethically and doing the right thing.


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Developing a trust model

Further to this, to address the three concerns of risk, reliance and results, businesses must build a trust model for their interactions with individuals. Firstly, focusing on risk, they must be transparent about the handling and processing of personal information.

Next, the organisation must stand behind what it does with the information and be accountable for anything that occurs that is not consistent with how it communicated the processing of it.

Finally, the organisation must provide the individual with a map detailing the path of their data so they can see the lifecycle of the information relative to their relationship with the organisation. This framework will ensure they are operating in a way that is both compliant and ethical.

Promoting the initiative company-wide

While appointing individuals whose responsibility it is to ensure data is used ethically, it is also fundamental that the ethical treatment of data becomes a company-wide initiative.

To enforce this, those at the top should ensure they use clear language when talking to employees about this issue. However, the harder job is making sure that what is said matches the actual activities that occur with personal information.

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Fortunately, by adopting a culture that includes a trust model of transparency, accountability and governance will provide a framework for the organisation to address this challenge. 

The end results

While the ethics of data must become more of a consideration for business, it’s pivotal that the gap between regulation and morality also closes, with the relevant bodies ensuring regulations evolve as quickly as the data they govern.

Although it’s in the best interest of organisations to treat data ethically in order to retain the trust of their customers, this shouldn’t be merely best practice, but should instead be mandatory and regulated as with every other aspect of data management.

With effective use of data, businesses can gain a great number of benefits, helping them to develop better products and services for their customers. However, it’s vital that organisations think about what they should do, rather than what they could do when it comes to data. And this should is not from the perspective of doing more with the data, but rather, doing more to add value to the relationship with the consumer.

In the end, information ethics is a competitive differentiator as individuals now begin to choose which organisations that they will interact with depending on not just economic or convenience factors, but also how well the organisation protects and safeguards the personal information that it has. 

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