The case for data ethics

Steven Tiell at Accenture: “Personal data is the coin of the digital realm, which for business leaders creates a critical dilemma. Companies are being asked to gather more types of data faster than ever to maintain a competitive edge in the digital marketplace; at the same time, however, they are being asked to provide pervasive and granular control mechanisms over the use of that data throughout the data supply chain.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If organizations, or the platforms they use to deliver services, fail to secure personal data, they expose themselves to tremendous risk—from eroding brand value and the hard-won trust of established vendors and customers to ceding market share, from violating laws to costing top executives their jobs.

To distinguish their businesses in this marketplace, leaders should be asking themselves two questions. What are the appropriate standards and practices our company needs to have in place to govern the handling of data? And how can our company make strong data controls a value proposition for our employees, customers and partners?

Defining effective compliance activities to support legal and regulatory obligations can be a starting point. However, mere compliance with existing regulations—which are, for the most part, focused on privacy—is insufficient. Respect for privacy is a byproduct of high ethical standards, but it is only part of the picture. Companies need to embrace data ethics, an expansive set of practices and behaviors grounded in a moral framework for the betterment of a community (however defined).


Why ethics? When communities of people—in this case, the business community at large—encounter new influences, the way they respond to and engage with those influences becomes the community’s shared ethics. Individuals who behave in accordance with these community norms are said to be moral, and those who are exemplary are able to gain the trust of their community.

Over time, as ethical standards within a community shift, the bar for trustworthiness is raised on the assumption that participants in civil society must, at a minimum, adhere to the rule of law. And thus, to maintain moral authority and a high degree of trust, actors in a community must constantly evolve to adopt the highest ethical standards.

Actors in the big data community, where security and privacy are at the core of relationships with stakeholders, must adhere to a high ethical standard to gain this trust. This requires them to go beyond privacy law and existing data control measures. It will also reward those who practice strong ethical behaviors and a high degree of transparency at every stage of the data supply chain. The most successful actors will become the platform-based trust authorities, and others will depend on these platforms for disclosure, sharing and analytics of big data assets.

Data ethics becomes a value proposition only once controls and capabilities are in place to granularly manage data assets at scale throughout the data supply chain. It is also beneficial when a community shares the same behavioral norms and taxonomy to describe the data itself, the ethical decision points along the data supply chain, and how those decisions lead to beneficial or harmful impacts….(More)”