data ethics data mangement ico safe data
11 Jun '21



In this three-part blog series, we will be discussing the topic of data ethics including why it is becoming such an important emerging area, an economic case for ethical data use and finally how an organisation can take action to incorporate data ethics into their overall business strategy. The blogs will be launched on our website weekly, or you can click here to get them straight to your inbox.

Climate change was first discussed more widely around 30 years ago, and we have watched the problem gradually develop until we are now reaching a point of no return, unless we collectively take drastic action to tackle the issue. Governments have been known to take a reactive stance in mitigating the impacts after they arise, instead of proactively anticipating the risks and enforcing the appropriate regulations before they occur. 

In the same way that the natural landscape has transformed over the years, we are now seeing an immense shift in the data landscape – there’s a tsunami of data incoming that brings huge risks which are largely unseen and unaccounted for. It is easy to draw parallels to climate change lacking sufficient regulatory processes, as we are reaching a point with technology where traditional governance frameworks are insufficient for managing the entirely new classes of risk that come with big data. For example, data breaches have always been a danger that organisations battle to mitigate, and the number of breaches is dramatically rising each year. Alongside this, new risks are emerging around unethical and inappropriate use of insights that are derived from data analysis, a topic which has been hotly debated in the media.

IDC has predicted that the volume of data is set to triple in the next 5 years, from 50ZB produced in 2020 to 175ZB by 2025. If we try to rationalise what we mean by a zettabyte in terms of time:

  • 1 gigabyte = 1 second
  • 1 million gigabytes = 11.5 days 
  • 1 billion gigabytes = 32 years 
  • 1 trillion gigabytes (aka 1 zettabyte) = 31,710 years … and we are predicted to create 175 in the next 5 years!

Data ethics offers an opportunity for organisations to choose the right path now and take a proactive stance to start tackling these risks that are emerging alongside the evolving data landscape.  When discussing data ethics, we are referring to the responsible use of data, centred around doing the right thing for people and society. The focus is honest and genuine transparency in data management, using data appropriately and taking suitable action on derived insights. Although concepts surrounding GDPR, privacy and security are an important part of data ethics – there is more to it than these regulations.  One of the main issues, is questioning who, is morally obliged to champion the progression of data ethics? The answer, we believe, is the businesses themselves. In the following sections we’ll explore shifting societal expectations, emerging risks of technological advancement and real-life case studies of unethical data use, to highlight why business need to lead the charge.

The Social Dilemma 

There is no denying the immense shift we have seen in society’s overall perception of large technology companies. Once praised for leading innovations, they are now under immense scrutiny over how the data they collect is managed and used. The recent documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ was watched by 38 million people around the world, fuelling a growing suspicion around how big technology captures and uses their personal data. Although focused predominantly on social media companies, there is much to be learnt from the failures it highlighted as the focus has recently expanded into other industries. As shown in the documentary, there is a lag between technological innovation and regulatory control. This can be a time of great creativity, as new technologies can be explored without any regulatory constraints. However, this needs to be done carefully to avoid unexpected societal implications and backlash to an organisation. 

The documentary examines the various ways social media companies have manipulated human psychology and now have the ability to affect real world behaviour without the users even being consciously aware. There are many examples of this both within the documentary and more widely, but this kind of behaviour demonstrates the requirement for having an ethical framework in place that incorporates key ethical principles such as;

  • Explainability: Being able to explain any advanced use of data such as Artificial Intelligence that is used in decision making
  • Provenance: Records should be annotated to capture the context and the conditions of consent should be reflected in the meta data
  • Law as the low bar: Law evolves retrospectively to problems that arise. Recognising this ensures decisions are made morally

Ethical Concerns in AI

As we enter a new decade and the volume of data is set to exponentially increase, future advanced techniques such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Quantum Computing will enable more to be done with the data held but companies must ensure that ethics are at the forefront of data management and decision making when utilising these technologies. Advancements are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and there are already many exciting applications being used by organisations, however practice can quickly outrun the legal framework. Data may be used within the parameters of the law such as GDPR, but the use may nonetheless be considered unethical.

There are many examples of human bias happening in Machine Learning such as in 2019, Facebook was allowing its advertisers to intentionally target adverts according to gender, race, and religion. For instance, women were prioritised in job adverts for roles in nursing or secretarial work, whereas job ads for janitors and taxi drivers had been mostly shown to men, in particular men from minority backgrounds. As a result, Facebook will no longer allow employers to specify age, gender or race targeting in its ads. It highlights the need for companies to embed and adhere to ethical principles across their organisation in order to advance in a safe and ethical way, going beyond what is legal and instead thinking about what is expected and what is equitable. With these controls in place, organisations can undoubtedly derive value by building and maintaining the trust of their customers. 

The New Business Model 

The predominant digital business model, based on the raw harvesting and use of personal data mainly for the benefit of shareholders at the expense of end consumers, has now reached the lower limits of consumer confidence and corporate reputation. Now we see the emergence of new companies that take privacy and ethics as a starting point, such as the technology company TikTok forming a Transparency and Accountability Centre that aims to build more trust with consumers by offering tours and breakdowns on how the algorithm operates and reviews of the source code – enabling full transparency and explainability. 

Going beyond direct legal compliance and embedding ethics now rather than later, will allow practises to become second nature and the benefits go beyond the ‘feel good factor’. As consumers increasingly consider the moral and ethical standards of the organisations they choose to buy from or work with, businesses that are ahead of the curve will naturally stand out amongst their peers and realise the benefits of being an ethical leader, winning loyalty from current customers and attracting a whole new customer base.  ultimately leading to top-line growth. 

Next up in our Data Ethics blog series we will be highlighting an economic case for ethical data management, including how organisations can gain a competitive advantage by proactively starting to tackle the issues discussed and the potential cost of inaction. You can sign up here to get the article straight to your inbox, or if you would like to find out more before then, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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