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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Most Companies Are Not Ready for Ethical Intelligence

Adding property rights to inherent human data could provide a significant opportunity and differentiator for companies seeking to get ahead of the data ethics crisis and adopt good business ethics around consumer data.

The ability for a business to operate based on some amount of intelligence is not new. Even before business owners used manual techniques such as writing customer orders in a book or using calculators to help forecast how many pounds of potatoes might be needed to stock up for next week's sales, there were forms of "insight searching." Enterprises are always looking for operational efficiencies, and today they are gathering more intelligence exponentially.

For Further Reading:

The New Ethics of Data Management

Data Collection: Ethics and Governance

4 Steps to Building an Ethical Big Data Practice

A significant part of business intelligence is understanding customers. The more data a company has about its current or prospective customers' wants, likes, dislikes, behaviors, activities, and lifestyle, the more intelligence that business can generate. In principle, more data suggests the possibility of more intelligence.

The question is: are most businesses and their employees prepared to be highly intelligent? If a company were to reach a state where it has significant intelligence about its customers, could it resist the urge to manipulate them?

Suppose a social media site uses past activities to conclude that a 14-year-old boy named Marlon is attracted to other teenage boys. Before Marlon discovers where he might be on the gay/straight spectrum, could the social media executives, employees, and/or algorithms resist the urge to target Marlon with content tagged for members of the LGBTQ community? If they knowingly or unknowingly target Marlon with LGBTQ-relevant content before the child discovers who he might be, is the behavior ethical?

Looking for Best Practices

Are businesses prepared to be responsible with significant intelligence, and are there best practices that would give a really intelligent business an ethical compass?

The answer is, perhaps, leaning toward no.

Business ethics is not new either. Much like business intelligence, it evolved over time. What is new is that ethics no longer only have to be embedded into humans that make business decisions. It must also be embedded in automated systems that make business decisions. The former, although imperfect, is conceivable. I might be able to hire ethical people or build a culture of ethics in people. The latter is difficult. Building ethics into systems is neither art nor science. It is a confluence of raw materials, many of which we humans still don't fully understand.

Business ethics has two components. One is the aforementioned ethics in systems -- sometimes called AI Ethics -- that is primarily focused on the design of algorithms. The other component of business ethics is data ethics, which can be measured from two dimensions: the algorithm and the raw material that goes into the algorithm (that is, the data).

AI ethics is complex but is being studied. At the core of the complexity are human programmers who are usually biased and can have varying ethical frameworks and customs and who create potentially biased or unethical algorithms.

Data ethics is not as complex but is not widely studied. It covers areas such as consent for the possession of data, authorization for the use of data, the terms under which an enterprise is permitted to possess and use data, whether the value created from data should be shared with the data's source (such as a human), and how permission is secured to share insights derived from data.

Another area of data ethics is whether the entire data set is representative of society. For example, is an algorithm determining how to spot good resumes being trained with 80 percent resumes from men and just 20 percent from women?

These are large social, economic, and historical constructs to sort out. As companies become exponentially more intelligent, the need for business ethics will likewise increase. As a starting point, corporations and executives should consider consent for and authorization of data used in business intelligence. Was the data collected with proper consent, meaning does the user really know that their data is being monetized or was it hidden in a long Terms and Conditions agreement? What were the terms and conditions? Was the data donated, was it leased, or was it "sort of lifted" from the user?

So many questions with limited answers.

The Property Rights Model

Silicon Valley is currently burning in a data ethics crisis. At the core is a growing social divide about data ownership between consumers, communities, corporations, and countries. We tend to anticipate that new problems need new solutions. In reality, sometimes the best solution is to take something we already know and understand and retrofit it into something new.

One emerging construct uses a familiar legal and commercial framework to enable consumers and corporations to find agreement around the many unanswered questions of data ownership. This construct uses the legal and commercial framework of property as a set of agreements to bridge the growing divide between consumers and corporations on the issues of data ownership, use, and consideration for value derived from data.

If consumer data is treated as personal property, consumers and enterprises can reach agreement using well-understood and accepted practices such as a title of ownership for one's data, track and trace of data as property, leasing of the data as property, protection from theft, taxation of income created from said data, tax write-offs for donating the data, and the ability to include data property as part of one's estate.

For corporations and executives, with increasing business intelligence comes increasing business ethics responsibilities.

What is your strategy?

About the Author

Richie Etwaru is a human data ethicist and the founder and CEO at where he is responsible for vision, strategy, and execution focus for the company. He is driven to reshape the world by creating a new data economy where inherent human data is legally human property. You can reach the author via email, on Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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