Just in case it’s not on your radar yet – We need to talk about data ethics

By DaYoung Yoo

To those who oversee reputation.

As part of my work here at ReputationInc, I’ve had chance to speak with experts across a range of different industries. Although their roles differ, there appears to be one common interest and that’s data. Most are excited about how data can unlock their organisation’s potential in the new digital economy. I agree with them on how remarkable the ‘intended’ consequences of big data, Artificial Intelligence and other relevant technologies will bring to their organisations. However, there was less thought given to the ‘unintended’ consequences of the new technology. No one really mentioned the social and ethical implications of data-driven activities. 

Data practices that are regarded as unethical can still be lawful. In other words, ethical data practice is not just the concern of data scientists, product managers or a legal team. It’s also an issue that reputation specialists, whose role is to guide the organisation to better decision making, should be concerned with as well. I believe that one of a reputation specialist’s most pivotal roles is to be a translator, standing in the gap between the organisation and the external world, reading zeitgeist and looking at the world through the wider social and ethical lens.

It is worth noting that the importance of data ethics doesn’t just apply to the so-called technology giants or data companies. In fact, many of these usual suspects have begun to make their efforts to examine the ethical implications of their work (these efforts are unlikely to solve all the problems but it’s a start). Overall, organisations can be a data controller, a processor or both. The data they deal with also takes different forms. Specifically, there is personal information such as names and addresses of consumers or patients and non-personal information like the topics that people are tweeting about in a particular location. Ethical issues can occur with both personal and non-personal data and in any type of organisation.

As data ethics scholars Luciano Floridi and Mariarosaria Taddeo outlined in 2016, data ethics primarily concerns three areas: how data is collected, stored and shared; how algorithms work; and how the organisations and individuals exploiting data design and run their practices. What this means is that there are multiple risks factors latent in every stage of an organisations operation that should be given attention.

We’ve all seen cases of reputational damage stemming from mishandling of personal data. By observing these fractures in the data economy system, the general public have become more aware of the potential risks of letting organisations collect and use their data. The general public has also shown propensity to choose organisations which they believe protect their personal data over others, as well as a willingness to pay a premium for the company they trust to protect their personal information. In other words, while it is easy to lose trust, earning and retaining trust in data practice can also mean gaining competitive advantage. In this risk prone environment, reputation specialists have the potential to be thought leaders in their organisations, encouraging them to embed data ethics into their practice and championing this principle externally as well.

As another example for the need to address data ethics, it's been shown through a number of cases that algorithms may be able to predict or decide something accurately, but it can’t decide what is just and unjust. Gender bias in online recruitment system and racial bias in mortgage algorithms are well-known stories. Some might say these algorithmic biases simply reflect the biases that so often exist in our communities, as it is people who decide how to handle data and write code for automatic decision making.  As mathematician Cathy O'Neil acutely pointed out, algorithm is ‘opinions embedded in code that repeats past practice’.  Considering this data challenge, again reputation specialists are left with only one option, to take data ethics onboard and guide their organisations to investigate the integrity of their data practice.

I foresee a future where data activists and a data literate general public are part of the key stakeholder list of most organisations.  To be truly future proof, organisations should not only be able to make the most of data technologies but also be mindful of their unintended consequences. For me, mitigating risks and gaining competitive advantage by acting digitally responsible will be a major factor in determining the survival of organisations in an increasingly digital age.  So please, reputation specialists, if you haven’t done it yet, go and talk to your organisations about data ethics.

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