How to Use Data in an Ethical Manner

In early 2018, the saga of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica dominated the news cycle. According to The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm employed by President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign, may have had access to up to 87 million Facebook users’ data.

The controversy has resulted in Facebook reforming its data policy and shows the need for caution when it comes to how user data is accessed and used by outside parties. Data is collected by companies in a myriad of ways, whether it be through social media use or through internet of things connected devices.

In another recent example, a popular dating app released sensitive medical information about its users to outside software vendors. The data was encrypted, but it still gave away information that potentially could be damaging in the wrong hands.

The app reminded users that it is a public forum and they should be cautious when sharing, but in an interview with The New York Times, a consumer advocacy group representative said that isn’t enough.

“It’s totally invisible to the user, which is why they feel betrayed and a loss of control when sensitive data about them is shipped to some third party,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at Consumers Union in the New York Times article. “I hope this will get app developers and other companies to rethink their promiscuous data-sharing practices.”

As the data continues to stream in, companies should monitor and analyze the use of this data while considering ethical implications behind it, as well as privacy concerns. Looking into data ethically requires a systematic approach as well as a values-based analysis.

Ensuring Ethical Use of Data with a Unified Framework

As with any rapid change, the gap between technological advances and government regulations has widened. For example, consider the increased use of cryptocurrency. So far, not much regulation has been implemented to govern its use, which has left open the potential for illegal transactions to take place.

According to IBM, within this gap is where the ethical dilemmas of data analysis and sharing take place. Companies have so much data on consumers and can target them directly through personalized marketing, but at what point do they cross a line? IBM outlines a few ways organizations should consider their use of data.

Together, these concepts make up the ethical awareness framework, developed by the UK and Ireland Technical Consultancy Group to assist in creating ethical data and analytics use policies.

  • Context: Why was the data collected? How is it being used now, and how far removed from the original intent is this current use?
  • Consent: Does the affected party know they’ve made this choice and completely comprehend what they’ve agreed to? Did your policy give them a chance to disagree?
  • Reasonable: Is the depth of the data collected really deemed reasonable for this use of the data?
  • Substantiated: Are the data sources authoritative, complete and timely?
  • Owned: Who is the owner of the final insight, and as the owner, what responsibilities do they have to protect it?
  • Fair: Are all parties compensated fairly and properly by the end results?
  • Considered: Are there consequences to collecting and analyzing this data?
  • Access: Are the data subjects given access to the results?
  • Accountable: Who is responsible for catching and fixing mistakes, and can the interested parties follow up on the results from the mistakes?

As both good and bad practices involving data use emerge, people using the data will have to make a choice on how to use it. The more negative issues arise, the more governmental regulations will be implemented, according to IBM – and the more regulations, the less autonomy organizations will have.

Five Key Values of a Unified Framework

A values-based analysis requires a look at five different areas, according to the authors of Unified Ethical Frame for Big Data Analysis, a paper published by The Information Accountability Foundation.

The five areas are: beneficial, progressive, sustainable, respectful and fair, and “establish the starting point for developing an assessment framework necessary to assure a balanced, ethical approach to big data,” according to the paper. Using these values can ensure that organizations make the right choices to equate “individual interests with integrity.”

The Future of Ethical Data Use

No single approach will encompass every situation. Each organization will have unique issues arise. Exercising judgment is the best way to ensure that data can be used ethically, in a way that protects the organization as well as the persons from whom the data was collected.

Ultimately, businesses will have to decide if the data use or access benefits the consumer in a way that will also benefit themselves. Partnering humans with artificial intelligence might be the best way to make sure that ethical practices are not violated – AI can discern human error, while humans can use their critical thinking skills to evaluate each situation as it arises.

The data analytics field is constantly growing, and it’s an exciting time to enter the field – with a Master of Science in Applied Data Analytics, it’s possible to explore emerging career opportunities that can help shape industry change around the world.

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