Framing the big data ethics

New Update
Big Data

By: Brenton Smith, VP & General Manager, Dell Software Group, APJ


Organizations have been tussling with big data for ages now. So much so, that it is today embedded as a mainstream challenge for organizations across sectors. Having said that, business leaders and ITDMs continue to grapple with two critical business needs: finding out the most effective way to handle the data explosion and data types, and need to yield optimum benefit from it by making more insightful business decisions.

In the middle of these complexities, however, another important aspect that goes unnoticed is: the need to frame a principled big data practice which is more sensitive towards customer’s privacy trepidations.


While dealing with the ethics of big data, we first need to understand it’s complexities in great detail that stems from the whims inherent within the concept of privacy itself. Few fundamental questions that crops up here are: What exactly is privacy, and more important, what are an individual's rights to privacy? The boundaries of privacy differ across cultures, and although it's generally understood that individuals are entitled to some level of privacy, the question of whose responsibility it is to protect that privacy has no single, clearly definable answer.

The concern becomes grave when you start dealing with every bit of information exchanged between customer and business. In some cases -- namely, with data disclosed to service providers such as doctors and lawyers -- the responsibility has always been on the receiver to protect the privacy of that information. In the case of customer-business relationships that are more transactional, however, such as with a retailer, the protection of private information has historically been seen as the responsibility of the discloser. If people don't want information exposed to a given business, they simply shouldn't provide those details in the course of their dealings with that business.

Earlier, it was easy to take that course but in the era of digital information, content has become fluid, simple and its dispersal is more instantaneous than ever. Today, businesses are not just receiving information, but, they are also using it for a purpose.


There has been a permanent shift in the responsibility to ensure privacy from the discloser to the user, which means, that organizations will need to take instant steps to ensure their burgeoning big data programs are implemented with the ethics of privacy in mind. However, the scheme for doing something like this is not final, as yet. Here are four steps that you should consider to head your business in the right direction:

1.Analyse the potential risk dynamics

One of the key rudiments of building an ethical big data practice is analysing all possible risk factors. There are many big data privacy breaches that are unintentional and unknown to analysts. Hence, it becomes critical for every individual involved in a big data initiative to understand the risks related to handling customer information.

Perhaps, merging of purchased data with other pattern data to infer or detect non-disclosed information, involves maximum risk. To ensure an ethical practice, target customers solely based on information disclosed within any single transfer of data.


2.Keep your users informed

Formulating policies that thwart employees from identifying non-disclosed information is just one part of the whole initiative. Some amount of personal responsibility still lies with employees as to how they use customer data, irrespective of it being obtained ethically. It's essential for a company to educate its staff on what level of targeting is acceptable, and, conversely, where the gray areas are that can potentially be harmful to both the customer and the company's brand.

3.Privacy should be the highlight

While designing any analytical tool, privacy should be given the utmost importance. This is applicable to both the vendors creating analytical tools and the analysts using them.

The current big data analytics technologies are definitely powerful and are constantly improving, enabling analysts to reach further than they ever could under the do-not-disclose privacy paradigm. It is imperative for both designer and user to show alertness otherwise the likelihood of overstepping acceptable boundaries becomes higher.

4.Lead from the top down

Since employees always look up to their business leaders, it becomes a moral responsibility of top-level executives and leaders to make the privacy policies absolutely clear. Be it company's analysts, marketers, or line-of-business managers, everyone should know that it is not acceptable to achieve company objectives at the expense of customer privacy.

Deriving business value out of big data has become highly imperative, however, we are still in a place where technology regularly outpaces social norms. Also, given that customers haven't had sufficient time to convey their comfort zones over the use of their personal and usage pattern data, the onus remains with business leaders to ensure that employees take the ethical route only.