The unexplored ethical boundaries of big data and how it is used

‘Accept’ and ‘Agree with the Terms and Conditions’ are as common today as checking our social media feed. In most cases, we do not have a choice but to ‘agree’ and ‘accept’ if we wish to acquire a certain product, to subscribe to a service or to download various e-books/articles etc.

To marketers and even PRs, these new data gathering avenues are like a day in Heaven: they guarantee a constant stream of new users, buyers/subscribers and individuals whose personal data we wouldn’t have so easily obtained.

But, and there is always a but, let’s reverse the roles for a second: even we, the professional marketers/PRs, are a number in someone’s database. Your data and mine is stored somewhere, in one of the myriad databases out there, for ‘marketing purposes’.

These ‘marketing purposes’ are not, as we naively may think, all about sending us an email now and again, or sending us the latest offers or catalogues. No, the marketing purposes are also about selling our data, private information, contact details etc.

Our personal data contributes to what today we call ‘big data’. And there is a ferocious market out there, with many opinion research, marketing and social media companies competing to sell our information to the highest bidder. Do we have a say in this? No. Do we partake in the profits? No. Do we get to pick and choose the purposes for which our personal data may/can be used? No.

There isn’t a single online transaction that we make, that is ‘trace-free’ – even if we were to use the deepest corners of the dark web, we’d still leave an electronic trail behind which would identify not only what we did, but when we did it, what device we used, what network we used, the location we accessed the data from, our IP address, what other websites have been used by the same electronic footprint and so on.

Every day, we provide Facebook with mounds of information: 10 billion Facebook messages, 4.5 billion hits on the ‘like’ button, 350 million new picture uploads. With data like this, Facebook knows who our friends are, what we look like, where we are, what we are doing, our likes, our dislikes, and so much more. And, if you’re not worried enough, Dr Freelon’s Social Media list of Data Mining Tools should do it.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the US has been seeking information on data access and, more recently, on alternative data for underwriting purposes; the UK Government is able to collect data on its citizens by demanding that they transact with them online.

The use (by Governments) and sale (by profit-making organisations) of our data raises a series of questions which, I believe, we don’t have an answer yet to:

  1. When our behaviours are ‘nudged’ to lose weight and stop smoking, for instance, how much psychological and demographic profiling has been done by using our personal data? Should we be informed what exactly our data is being used for?
  2. When Government policies are targeted at the many, what happens with the few? How are the minority groups represented in that ‘majority’ decision?
  3. When our data is collected during trivial processes such as booking a dinner table or purchasing a train ticket, how do we know that is not being sold to others? If it is sold (as we know it is), shouldn’t we decide who it is being sold to and, even more so, be paid for it?
  4. When political campaigns are being run, shouldn’t we be informed by the candidate(s) that they have the full socio-anthropological and psychological profiles of the electorate at the ready, and they tell us what we want to hear, not what they really think?

These are just some questions of the many we may grapple with. It is, if you want, a step into the less explored ethical boundaries of big data, personal data, and what is being done with it. Public Relations practitioners use every single tactic, method or approach I have mentioned in this post. I do, too – and I’m a big believer in data and research.

I don’t know what my personal data is used for – I do know that I’ve ‘been involved in a car accident’ I had no idea about, that I have ‘mis-sold PPI’, that I ‘need a Funeral Plan’, that my ‘electricity provider should be replaced’ etc. Do you know what happens with your data and what is its net worth? 

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Prof Anne Gregory, PhD, for sharing with me her as-yet unpublished research on the ethical challenges of big data transactions

Image courtesy of flickr user Vodafone Institut

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Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities. She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR's Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2018), Founder of CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, former Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times, she developed the Leadership Development Programme for SPE’s MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, BP, Shell, Centrica, KazTransOil, Averda, The World Bank, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development and many others. She is also Robert Gordon University's Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma (CIPR Specialist Diploma).

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