The Ethical Data Dilemma

As a globally minded business person, if you haven’t gained exposure to the numerous new laws and regulations emphasizing the rights of people to access, understand and be familiar with their personal data in the last six months, then you must have been living on another planet outside of our solar system. I am referring to the Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect on May 25th, 2018. In addition, the Brazilian General Data Protection Law that went into effect on August 14th, 2018.  In the United States very recently the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) 2018 launched. Not being aware of these could be a problem for you and it may be better for you to stay away from Earth. If you do plan to return to the the solar system and Planet Earth anytime soon, you will need to get busy to ensure you are in compliance.

In a July 27th, 2018 article in the Indianapolis Business Journal, Kristin Eilenberg and Stan Crosley advocated going even further in suggesting that “We must shift from the idea of complying with minimum standards to a paradigm focused on the ethical use of data.” Whether you agree with the premise, the dilemma or enigma remains. That is, what exactly is meant by the “ethical use of data?” I will provide some insight also into why you should care.

In my experience as an executive who has held titles that are the equivalent of ethics officer and/or marketing leader for a global firm, the word “ethics” can be a very subjective, the nuance tied to the desired outcome of the person arguing it. In the business to consumer and even the business to business marketplace, the interpretation of What is right, or a right outcome can be debated on and off social media and in customer service circles forever. What is right for the consumer is often in the eye of the beholder; there are inherent conflicts and battles in play when these discussions take place.

Recent advances in technology and marketing know-how and the benefits they can bring in terms of customization and personalization of offerings to consumers are only possible through increased and unfettered access to all sorts of structured and unstructured data. This data is captured in a myriad of different ways. It’s often utilized in real time by salespeople, marketers and bots to uncover insights and tailor offerings to meet consumer needs. Think of the Facebook data breeches and much more, spilling out in headlines worldwide. We see it often and it goes away. Except your data doesn’t go away. Just recently in the news, Google, we find out, tracks you when you ask it to stop tracking you. What gives?

Multiple vendors in this brave new world are incentivized to push the envelope and the boundaries of the services they offer, in order to gain a competitive edge. For example,  “ Our proprietary technology continually connects billions of Consumers digital and real-world behaviors, enabling digital marketers to achieve greater cross-channel personalization.” Quite a big boast which vendors claiming this or similar will feel the pressure to deliver on.

Multiple marketers bought up in the Internet age are motivated to chase success by leveraging the strongest insights to target the needs that can be addressed with the least friction. Data might be needed for promotional claims, for salesforce knowledge and follow up, for publications, for market research , data analytics projects, for integrating direct customer data with third party  data sources, for data handling by third parties and for data storage. The list goes on, in pursuit of greater and greater insights, which is the name of the game, right? Who wouldn’t find that satisfying and a blast?

With this technological , competitive and consumerist drive for more personalization and relevancy, is it any wonder that ethical norms are under pressure, not least because the term ethics is so darned subjective .

In fairness to all of those who care about this issue, who really defines what is ethical and what is not? Isn’t what is right or wrong often determined by what was taught around the kitchen table in your childhood? Depending on your kitchen table or mine this could get scary. Also, what is and is not acceptable in your culture and how you were raised? In some cultures, strength and flexibility are prized aspect of ethics that co-exist happily. My cultural upbringing encouraged women to take leadership roles and to speak up for example but that’s not been “the norm” in some households and in some business strongholds.

What is “ethical” can also be a function of which definition you pick and there are many. Most definitions hinge around moral principles and a person’s moral obligations in society, which provides a lot of room to justify a wide range of  behaviors (to better help the customer, yes?)  When thinking about data, there is not just the ethical utilization of data to consider ( i.e. does the consumer truly appreciate and understand what is happening to their personal data?) There is also the key topic of Privacy with the rights of customers to have a say in how their data is used, moved , secured and stored  and their rights to be forgotten if they desire it. Medical Ethics and Bio-ethical considerations are additionally at play when companies are working in the health care arena. Translating this to layman’s terms, when role modeling for your kids , do you emphasize “doing things in the right way and in consideration of others,” or “succeeding at all costs?”

So, how to navigate all this complexity? The following list is not exhaustive ( particularly in a period of exponential change and with new regulations to incorporate) but is probably a good start.

1.    A set of internal principles on the ethical utilization of data by your company should be debated and published. Be clear on what is acceptable and what isn’t , so your employees know the boundaries and have consistency to rely on.

2.    Employees should be trained to understand your ethical data use principles and regulations and they should have the required resources available to conduct the project.

3.    Governance for the ethical utilization of data should be instituted. This should include a process of senior level , cross functional, documented review and approval for all new uses of data and the keeping a documented log of all existing use cases. There should be a clearly documented business question and purpose justifying the use of the data and that the data is only used consistently with that purpose , consistent with the customers consent language and within the agreed time frame.

4.    The ethical implications of a request to utilize data in new ways should be assessed against the published ethical principles by those making the submission, as part of the submission. They need to truly believe the data utilization to be appropriate and containing nothing that if explained in full to the customer, would negatively ‘surprise’ or impact their trust in the company.

5.    Processes and systems need to be agile enough to honor the rights of those people wishing to change their minds about their data being utilized, when exercised.

6.    Data utilization should be limited to a small number of approved people and for a defined period, after which the data is disposed of.

7.    External parties processing personal information on the Company’s behalf need to be  appropriately assessed and contracted for this type of work. The Company is no less liable for the outcomes because they used a third party.

Obviously, there will be some eye rolling at what looks to be an increased set of minimum requirements with which to burden small and innovative companies seeking to be agile.

Yet care needs to be taken in considering how data is being used so that a customer feels able to trust the company it has engaged with and would not be surprised with what happens to their information. Clearly, speed is a competitive imperative, but an erosion of trust could bring the whole future of digital marketing and digital business crashing down. Fines and increasing government interventions are to be avoided. More importantly, how someone does business and the impact on society should matter. The use of someone’s data should be viewed as a privilege and taking care of how it is used should become as synonymous as giving somebody “your word!”

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