What’s your approach to data ethics? 

It’s relatively easy these days to access data about people. Patterns of behaviour, spending habits and social networks, to travel routes and employment status – it’s all ripe for the picking.

Several years ago this data would have been considered ‘private’ but today it’s shared openly, sometimes inadvertently. Our expectations for customised service or a general fear of missing out, drives us to share details about ourselves through our networks and phones, with retailers, government and service providers.

Forbes recently reported that data ethics is one of the single most important priorities for leading businesses after what some might say was a regrettable 2018 from a public trust standpoint. Apple CEO Tim Cook also holds a firm front when it comes to data protection regulation, suggesting “Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponised against us with military efficiency.”

Establishing trust, transparency and accountability is key to building strong relationships and achieving best practice. As such, ethics should permeate every data-related decision moving forward. If ever there was a need to apply an ethical framework to decision making, it’s now. The volume of data collected is continually increasing and a decline in volume, variety or velocity is not in our foreseeable future. On the upside, this data enables deep trend analysis and predictive modelling which results in the provision of better and more tailored services. It provides new and accelerated opportunities to expand our insights by combining data, enabling more panoramic views of business trends and landscapes, and richer views of behaviours enabling detailed customer profiling.

Through this process, decisions about the ethical use of data are either intrinsic to the decision-making process or overlooked altogether. Now that we can combine and analyse data to build richer profiles and interrogate potential business opportunities, we must ask the question — is it ethical to do so in every case? Of course in many cases the customer gains a benefit through improved services or economies of scale, but have we considered all perspectives about the use of their data and their privacy? Have we breached their trust?

Ethics have long been a cornerstone of the research sector, led by a national code of conduct and statements on ethical conduct for research relating to humans or animals. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest there has been a similar focus on data ethics in the corporate sector. The ethical treatment of data is no less important to customers in the corporate world or citizens receiving public services than it is in the world of human-focused research.

Data ethics requires more than just common sense. It guides decisions about the purpose of data collection, what data should be collected, how it should and should not be used and who should access it. Essentially, it describes the value judgements and approaches to be used when generating, analysing, combining and sharing data, including the appropriate use of technology and tools. Combining data ethics with the discipline of data governance empowers the right people to make decisions about data.

Ethical norms vary and will be interpreted, applied and balanced differently by different people based on their own values and life experiences. This is exactly how bias tends to arise — either consciously or unconsciously — and is the reason why every organisation that collects data should evaluate or review their ethical practice model. The level of unconscious bias resulting from the life experiences of programmers has recently been a topic of conversation for those involved in machine learning and artificial intelligence (i.e. assumptions relating to gender in professions). In addition to cultivating workplace diversity to ensure varied perspectives and backgrounds, a set of shared data ethics principles which promote integrity, transparency and accountability is one way of catching or removing bias before it has a negative impact.

There is also significant regulatory change on the horizon.

The Australian Government’s Consumer Data Right (CDR) regime to be introduced in 2019 will improve customer choice and convenience by allowing personal data to be shared with third parties by request. Data ethics is a central tenant of the regime. Financial services will be the first sector of the Australian economy to which the CDR is to be applied, through Open Banking, followed by the energy and telecommunications sectors. It requires changes to the existing consent model including the dimensions of authentication and authorisation.

Our client Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) is on the front foot from a data ethics perspective. We recently helped them to design a framework that puts ethics at the centre of data management across the local government sector. This framework is allowing LGAQ to maintain a series of checks and balances around the use of data, but importantly, it’s helping the organisation to build trust, and ensure transparency and accountability. [Read more]

Bringing data ethics and data responsibility to the forefront is the right business decision, both for organisations and their customers.

Michelle Teis

Michelle Teis
Partner