Think Data Ethics Don’t Matter? You’re Wrong

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    The Challenges of Gaining Useful Insight into Data

    Do data ethics matter? In an industry that tends to define ethics as “don’t get caught,” it’s a hard sale to make.

    But Gartner VP of Research Frank Buytendijk is trying. He feels that sometimes tech developments are made by “Silicon Valley people, who have lived privileged lives and are just not thinking about the consequences,” CBR Online quotes Buytendijk as saying at Gartner’s recent data management summit. “It is not a case that your company is evil, but because there are unintended consequences.”

    Let’s get real: Ethics isn’t the industry’s strong point. It’s not so much that technology and technologists are malicious. The industry is driven by a “first to market” mentality that cultivates a blind eye to responsibility. The ethical framework seems to be “none is responsible until all are.”

    Even Google’s pseudo-ethical motto — don’t be evil — isn’t ethical in a way most people would recognize. Even Buytendijk acknowledges that most companies’ approach to ethics is geared toward “not being in trouble.”

    Can data be different? Is there a business imperative that might drive businesses to embrace ethical data practices, without regulations? There are some reasons to think it should be possible.

    Marketing Magazine recently shared Simon James’ SXSW15 talk, ominously titled, “There is no such thing as ethics in analytics.” James is the VP of global performance analytics at SapientNitro. He contends that data analytics’ potential to impact lives may have outpaced its reliability. That can lead to ethically questionable use of data, he adds.

    “Data analytics is not infallible and algorithms are only as smart as the people who write them,” he states. “Marketers are ill equipped to deal with the ethical conundrums that represent the gap between what we could do with a consumer’s data and what we should do.”

    He’s not the only one to point out that data doesn’t necessarily yield a true view of reality. Back in 2013, Buytendijk and fellow Gartner Research VP Jay Heiser made a similar argument in this Financial Times article (registration required). They identified five risks to privacy and ethics inherent in Big Data. Companies risk their reputation and compromise their ability to make sound decisions when data is used in questionable ways, they argued.


    Perhaps instead of data scientists, organizations should be recruiting philosophy majors? If that doesn’t strike you as a workable option, Buytendijk and Heiser recommended that CIOs, marketing staff and legal collaborate on a Big Data analytics ethical code of conduct. This document — which I’m sure will be widely and thoroughly read — should:

    • Describe what the company finds appropriate and inappropriate.
    • Outline a process for ethical checks and balances for Big Data analytics.
    • Specify legal implications.
    • Discuss whether the intended use of data fits how it’s being used.
    • Address the type of public disclosure of the data’s use that “would be comfortable” for the organization.

    James foresees a time when companies will share data policy statements, just as they do corporate social responsibility statements today.

    “But how long will it be before companies see the value in stating their data policy to shareholders, stressing their commitment to consumer privacy and security, and limiting the allowable use of their customers’ data for corporate gain? Surely this fits the agenda of transparency and social governance?”

    Hopefully, they’ll put some teeth in that policy to ensure that it is followed.

    Loraine Lawson is a veteran technology reporter and blogger. She currently writes the Integration blog for IT Business Edge, which covers all aspects of integration technology, including data governance and best practices. She has also covered IT/Business Alignment and IT Security for IT Business Edge. Before becoming a freelance writer, Lawson worked at TechRepublic as a site editor and writer, covering mobile, IT management, IT security and other technology trends. Previously, she was a webmaster at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and a newspaper journalist. Follow Lawson at Google+ and on Twitter.

    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson is a freelance writer specializing in technology and business issues, including integration, health care IT, cloud and Big Data.

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