Article

Four principles of ethical data use

Jill Engel

4 minute read

Have you ever thought about the amount of data your company collects on any given day? With such a vast amount of data being collected, ethical questions about what you should or shouldn’t do with that data arise, particularly when you’re dealing with sensitive or personal information.  Below we outline our four basic principles of ethical data use, so that we can keep you in good standing with your customers, prospects and society on the whole.

Data ethics: more than a social dilemma

We all know that consumers often exchange data for additional services or value from organizations, whether or not they realize what data they’re giving up. After all, who actually reads all the “Terms & Conditions” before clicking “Agree”? Take social media platforms as an example. Consumers must accept the terms of service before they can even set up an account. The catch is that consumers are not always aware of what they are “agreeing to”, and unfortunately there are companies that can take advantage of this naivety.

The WhatsApp controversy last year was a good example of how people are starting to care a lot more about their privacy. Even though they didn’t change their privacy terms and conditions that much, the changes gave light to exactly how much of our privacy we’re giving up and the end result was millions of people jumping off of WhatsApp and moving to apps like Signal.

Several years ago, Facebook apparently conducted an experiment. They curated individual news feeds for thousands of unwitting users to show especially sad or happy content for a week. The results revealed that those who were exposed to negative content were more likely to post negative things and vice versa.

Though their terms of service make this experiment legal, many would agree that this behavior is unethical. Not only were the users not made aware of this experiment or what the data was being used for, but Facebook inherently set out to manipulate their users’ emotions and state of mind through curated content. (Don’t even get us started on Cambridge Analytica…)

This is where questions of ethics come into play. It is expected that algorithms curate content and ads based on consumer behavior, but how ethical is the addition of human intervention or bias used to manipulate a customer base? Especially when what’s being manipulated is the emotions of that base, and without informed consent, no less. Who controls that decision? And how can we make sure everyone plays fairly?

How can ethical data be demonstrated in analytics?

With the rise in data scandals and the misuse of collected information, companies will increasingly be held accountable for the data they collect, ensuring it is being used for the initial stated purpose. The Facebook experiment shown above is a perfect example of big data being used unethically due to lack of policy and transparency for their users. 

Without regulation and policy in place, customer information can go anywhere and be used in any way. It is the responsibility of the organizations collecting the data to create procedures that ensure their customers are being treated fairly and ethically.

This is an evolving area and while there are still many unanswered questions, we encourage you to follow these four basic principles of ethical data use.

#1. Basic transparency with customers

You should be as transparent as possible with your customers and what the intended use of the customer data that you are collecting is as governed by your national or state legislation. In fact, in Canada, customers have the legal right to be informed about where their data is being used or who it is being sold to.  In California (CCPA) and Virginia (CDPA) they too are starting to address this topic with their own privacy laws, with many other states following close behind.

Best practices suggest that you could take this transparency a step further by giving the customer a view of what is being collected and how it is being used, and communicating your intentions in clear and simple language. If at any time you change the way your customer data is being used, it should be your moral and professional obligation to let your customers know about those changes, and ask for their permission to continue using their data.

#2. Control of Data

Give customers control of their personal data by granting them the ability to manage the flow of their private information.  Customers should also be allowed to opt-out at any time. Numerous countries have already passed laws that require companies to make it easier for their contacts to opt-out of receiving emails or other messages, giving them more control over how their contact information is used.

#3. Access to Data

Customers should have the right to access their personal data at any time, and they should also have the ability to challenge how their data is being used. This can be accomplished by providing your contacts visibility and offering a breakdown of the statistics collected and documented. It’s always important to inform the customer about what they are giving up in exchange for the service or discount they will receive by providing you with their information

#4. Accountability of the use of data

In order to maintain a reputable level of ethical and legal accountability, measures should be put in place. You will need to consider the kinds of forecast, analysis, and inference that should or shouldn’t be utilized when analysts are working with the data. Algorithms can unintentionally engage in unconscious biases, so it becomes vital to understand the data being collected in order to ensure that all consumers are being fairly represented. Big data should not institutionalize unfair biases. 

Can ethics and data really work together?

The answer is they must! By following our four principles and guidelines above, your customers will feel confident that their data is being collected and used ethically. Putting these principles and guidelines in place will help to protect personally identifiable information and build credibility with your customer base into the future.  

This ethical credibility could potentially translate into a competitive advantage over companies who haven’t taken the time to build that trust with their customers and as a result, they could fall behind as additional regulations and laws impacting this space are rolled out. 

If you would like to further discuss the ethical use of your organization’s data, contact Trendline and we’ll gladly connect you with our compliance experts. We would love to help you ensure you are charting the right course to safeguard your customers’ data and retain their trust and loyalty.

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About the Author(s)

Jill Engel

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