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What do Target and the NSA have in common?

Court room

They both used Big Data and analytics in a way that inspired a major slap on the hand. Target was predicting which of their customers were pregnant and sending them targeted coupons for baby products, which prompted the ire of a father whose teenage daughter hadn’t told him yet. The NSA incurred the wrath of world leaders, the US Congress, and even a good portion of the American public when the extent of their data gathering methods were revealed by a former contractor.

It reminds me of this bit of wisdom:

“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.”

-Fathers everywhere

The lack of an ethical standard for uses of data is causing conflict between users of data and the people those data describe. Organizations that wait until the courts weigh in on the matter may find themselves being the subject of precedent-setting cases. It would be far better to adhere to a code of ethics concerning data than have a lackadaisical attitude exposed in court.

So how do we decide whether a potential use of data is ethical? I propose that we ask ourselves the following questions before beginning any project:

  • Is this data anonymous, or does it describe a specific person?
  • How did we come to have this data? Did the person give it to us, did we deduce it from other data, or did we buy it?
  • Could our use of this data be considered illegal in some jurisdictions? Would it be looked upon with suspicion?
  • Most importantly, if the person knew we were using the data in this way would he be upset?
  • Would we want someone else to know this much about us?

This list is by no means exhaustive; this is just the start. My hope is that others will see this and add in their own questions and guidelines, and we can begin the process of building the ethical framework that is so desperately needed.

I’m sure there are some decision makers that will not welcome these questions, but, as is frequently the case, we can choose to regulate ourselves in this matter or we can have regulations forced upon us. In some places the government is already getting involved, such as the legislation proposed by Senators John McCain and John Kerry in the United States. The European Union considers data privacy such an issue they formed the Article 29 Working Party way back in 1996, and that group regularly weighs in on proposed legislation. Governments tend to move upon signs of public outrage, and we are dangerously close to that point with some uses of data.

So I ask you, what are you going to do with that data about me? Would I like it?

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Tags: analytics, big, data, ethics, privacy

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