Achieving Trust Through Data Ethics

Success in the digital age requires a new kind of diligence in how companies gather and use data.

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A few months ago, Danish researchers used data-scraping software to collect the personal information of nearly 70,000 users of a major online dating site as part of a study they were conducting. The researchers then published their results on an open scientific forum. Their report included the usernames, political leanings, drug usage, and other intimate details of each account.

A firestorm ensued. Although the data gathered and subsequently released was already publicly available, many questioned whether collecting, bundling, and broadcasting the data crossed serious ethical and legal boundaries.

In today’s digital age, data is the primary form of currency. Simply put: Data equals information equals insights equals power.

Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate — along with data creation and collection. But where should the line be drawn? Where do basic principles come into play to consider the potential harm from data’s use?

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

While digital advancements enable new opportunities for businesses to compete and thrive, they also create increased exposure to systemic risks. Digital trust — identified as a key trend in the Accenture Technology Vision 2016 report — is very difficult for businesses to build with customers, but very easy to lose.

These risks are recognized in an accompanying Accenture survey of more than 3,100 business and IT executives worldwide. The survey found that 81% of respondents agreed that as the business value of data grows, the risks companies face from improper handling of data increase exponentially. This has resulted in increased security investments across all industries, with global information security spending set to exceed $100 billion by 2019, according to Gartner.

Even so, a singular focus on security is not enough. While data ethics is a new area for most businesses, it must be a key consideration as organizations evaluate starting or continuing their digital transformation journeys.

Some companies are already addressing the need for data ethics to be a central component in their overall business approach. Facebook, for example, recently published a paper that provides a detailed overview of how the company conducts research using the personal data of its users. Facebook announced the creation of an internal review board composed of legal and ethical experts to formulate privacy and ethical standards for corporate research involving human data.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series

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