Blurred Lines: The Ethics of Collecting & Using Big Data

Data collection is a $160 billion industry and its growth isn’t slowing anytime soon. According to Michael Taylor, a former vice president of corporate strategy for General Electric and a business intelligence consultant with over 12 years in the field, as the practice continues to grow and the software and systems used to collect this data become more sophisticated, businesses will continue to find new applications of big data to help fuel their growth, efficiency, and profitability.

The influence of big data and data collection has become apparent in consumer settings, such as those handy curated coupons dispensed at the grocery store checkout counter. There are also significant convenience benefits to having certain digital information archived, especially if it’s used by a business or organization a consumer has an active relationship with, such as a bank, university, or doctor’s office.

Data collection and analysis also have applications in other avenues that can significantly improve peoples’ lives. “Data collection can be really positive: it’s helping personalized medicine evolve, for example. Scientists use anonymous patient data to determine what types of DNA respond better to different kinds of treatments,” according to Rob Croll, a digital marketing consultant and the director of Full Sail University’s Business Intelligence master’s degree program.

When marketers gain access to this type of data, from the type of vitamins, household goods, and cleaning supplies we buy to the prescription medications we research online, the results can seem almost magical. Most people appreciate receiving a coupon with the receipt at the grocery store that seems perfectly related to the foods they like, or finding sponsored posts on their Facebook feeds that are curated to their tastes.

However, there can be a downside to widespread data collection. According to Croll, “In the marketing world there’s a running joke that ‘marketers ruin everything.’ I think that’s where we get into dangerous territory of crossing ethical lines: using data solely for the purpose of commerce.”

In 2012, discount retailer Target used data collection to track a female’s buying patterns and mail related coupons to her house. Based on her purchasing habits, the company mailed her coupons meant for pregnant mothers.

Great marketing strategy, or a violation of privacy?

It turns out the woman receiving the coupons was a teenager living at home with her parents … parents who didn’t know she was pregnant. “Essentially, Target knew she was pregnant before her family did,” says Croll, “Companies have so much information about us, and we often don’t even know that they have it.”

The Target incident is one of many scenarios that shine a light on an increasingly asked question: What are the ethics when it comes to data collection?

The same technology that helps a consumer find a great deal on exactly the item they’re looking for can be used against them. According to Taylor, “a travel website can predict if you’re a Mac user of if you’re working on a lower-cost PC, and they can send you higher-priced airfares.” While many businesses have internal standards to protect their consumers, without regulation there will always be those who push the boundaries of ethical behavior.

For now, data collection is a relatively unregulated practice: what’s shared on the Internet, from medical diagnoses to mortgage application details, is fair game for data brokers. To some, this access to personal data – which consumers really have no way of stopping from happening – crosses a number of ethical boundaries.

Taylor, Croll, and a number of other business intelligence professionals believe that one of the ways to stop the data collection scale from tipping heavily onto the un-ethical side is government regulation. Similar to the Fair Credit Reporting Act – which protects the privacy of information gathered by consumer-reporting agencies – a system of checks and balances needs to be put in place.

“The government needs to have a mandate where they can say to these firms, for instance, if you’re going to sell somebody’s data, you have to get their approval first,” says Taylor, who’s consulted on data analytics for companies such as Disney and Verizon and currently teaches in Full Sail’s Business Intelligence program. “Then, if a consumer finds out that his or her data was sold without consent, they could take action. If there’s a heavy fine related to the action, it could curtail data brokers. When you violate someone’s privacy and it harms them, you’ve got to suffer the consequences.”

The debate on whether or not data collection crosses an ethical line will persist until a legal precedence is set. It’s an often talked-about topic in Taylor’s Business Intelligence Communication and Leadership course at Full Sail. “My students get really excited about this,” says Taylor. “Everybody has a personal story to tell when it comes to the ethics and privacy issues surrounding big data. It’s an incredibly relevant topic in the industry today.”

Full Sail University’s Business Intelligence Master’s program provides students with the tools to manage, understand, and strategically utilize the wealth of data collected by modern businesses. To learn more, click here.

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