An Introduction to Data Ethics
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Data ethics is now seen as an important and powerful business tool. TechCrunch recently described data ethics as a strategic business weapon, IDC as the new competitive advantage, and Gartner as a top technology trend for 2019 and beyond.

And while data ethics has a legion of fans in the arena of big data and artificial intelligence, in the field of security the power of data ethics in preventing data breaches and privacy failures has been largely overlooked. That may be about to change.

    In a 2016 study titled The Business Value of Trust, Cognizant summed it up bluntly. “Trust has become the new battleground for digital success,” said the report. “To win, organizations need to master the fundamentals of data ethics. Companies that earn consumer trust will be better suited to weather the inevitable — and yes, they are inevitable — data and policy breaches.”

    Luckily, ethics is actually pretty simple, in fact, so simple it might even be second nature. Which means for most of us humans, data ethics doesn’t actually require much thinking at all. But it does require some teaching, if only to get you thinking.


What data ethics isn’t


First of all, Data ethics isn’t privacy. It’s related, but different. Privacy is in most cases a set of rules, guidelines, Policies, promises used by your organization as its own baseline regarding how it collects and handles customer data. But we know that very few customers ever even read privacy policies, most aren’t even aware they exist. And many employees never read them either.

    While privacy policies can be a challenge because it means remembering sometimes long lists of rules that may change often, Data ethics can be a lot easier because as I mentioned earlier, much of it is based around your natural inclination to do the right thing.

    And data ethics is not data security. Data security, or cybersecurity is a really just set of tools, of processes, procedures, policies, practices, even people designed to protect data from those who shouldn’t have access to it. Data security doesn’t really care if you’re not supposed to be collecting or using that data in the first place

And it’s not data breaches – although good data ethics can both help prevent data breaches from happening, and help mitigate the harm and cost if they do happen. Which is why data ethics is becoming such a central part of cybersecurity and employee security awareness.


Let’s take a quick look at the notion of ethics generally

Discussions about ethics have been raging for a more than two thousand years and originated in ancient Greece with great thinkers and philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

To try and make the sometimes-complex notion of ethics a little easier to grasp, I traveled the world by internet in search of some gentle gems of wisdom that might make it easier for the light bulb to do its thing.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive analysis, then how about:

"Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, concerns matters of value, seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, and is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory."

  • Or this, from former Justice of the United States Supreme Court Potter Stewart “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
  • From best-selling author Harvey Mackay “Ethical decisions ensure that everyone's best interests are protected. When in doubt, don't.”
  • And this from futurist Patrick Dixon and perhaps most relevant to the workplace. “Strong ethics keep corporations healthy. Poor ethics make companies sick. Values are the immune system of every organization.”

Or put more simply, it’s about doing the right thing. However, in the workplace, doing the right thing, and especially the right thing about data, does not always match what the organizations requires or demands

And that’s where discussions about practical ethical dilemmas come in.

For example

  • Which decisions will lead to the most good and least harm?
  • What can I live with that is consistent with my basic values and commitments?
  • Which course of action is feasible in the world as it is?
  • How do I match individual good with social good, with what’s good for the organization I work for.
  • And let's not forget moral duty and obligation, and especially what's called positive morality – being moral because it improves the lives of others.

And those dilemmas can be very common when it comes to handling and treating data in the workplace. A potential clash between what is ethically right and what is economically expedient.

And the most common dilemma is usually based around three sometimes conflicting factors.

  • First, what’s my gut telling me is the right thing, the ethical thing, to do with data.
  • What is actually the ethical thing, in case my gut is wrong simply because I’m not an ethical person.
  • What does my workplace, my employer, want or expect me to do with data.

If all three align, then data ethics becomes much easier.

If any are out of alignment, then it may need some more reflection and discussion.


But these simple ideas might help ignite clarity


• Data ethics is a way to protect data (and therefore ensure security and privacy) by respecting the data you collect or handle.

• It’s about thinking about, looking at data, in terms of the humans behind it.

• It’s about respecting the data regardless of any self-interest simply because it’s the right thing, the decent ethical thing to do.

• And it’s about doing the right thing for people and society not just for corporate profit or gain.

And remember, data itself has no ethical problems. We humans create the problems. Data is generally good. Data is the fuel of the new economy, what many refer to as the fourth Industrial Revolution, and it has the potential to improve all our lives in incredible ways.

But only as long as we treat data the right way, we treat the humans behind the data the right way, we always put ethics first.


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