Data Ethics: Principles, Examples, and Protecting Yourself

Data Ethics in 2021: What is it? [Top Principles & Examples]

Data ethics is a branch of ethics that deals with the moral problems related to data during its phases of processing, curation, sharing, dissemination, generation, recording, and correspondence.

Companies have been collecting, selling, and using your data for years, sometimes, without your consent. Do you remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? The “big data” company mined data from millions of Facebook users to manipulate the US presidential elections in 2016. This scandal sparked an ongoing debate over data ethics and how to protect consumers.

What is Data Ethics?

“It is a branch of ethics that deals with the moral problems related to data during its phases of processing, curation, sharing, dissemination, generation, recording, and correspondence”, Professor Luciano Floridi, Oxford University.

Consider the difference between stealing and using someone’s personal belongings with their consent. We don’t even need to ask which situation is ethical. That pretty much sums up the basics.

But data ethics is more than just asking for consent to use personal information. It is about how YOUR data will be managed, handled, and stored, alongside the moral issues arising out of its usage. As the interest in data-driven decision making increases, so does a dire need for a regulatory framework to ensure businesses follow ethical data policies.

B11-Google trends

Steady increase in interest in data ethics since January 2010 in the US. Image by Google Trends.

Why should you care about Data Ethics?

You should be concerned about data ethics because it directly impacts you. Facebook uses your data and sells it for profit to advertisers, this is something you need to be aware of. The fact that your personality model is developed by artificial intelligence to predict your future outcomes and serve relevant ads, goes on to show just how much priority is given to profit and how valuable your personal data is.

When you are being offered something for free, it isn’t free, and in this case, you are the product. The price you pay for using free social media services like facebook and instagram is that you are allowing them to partake in legal data collection where they turn around and sell it categorically through a targeted segment to advertisers.

As a consumer, you have the power to raise your voice using social media about the data ethics issues companies are engaged in, potentially impacting its reputation and profits.

What are the top Data Ethics principles?

You can have better control over your data when you know how and when it is being used and shared with other businesses. For example, if you register with a food delivery service, and grant access to share your data with the associated restaurants, it means you agree to have those vendors approach you with latest offers, and discounts.

Top principles you should practice:

  1. Your data belongs to you.
  2. Ask companies on how they treat your data.
  3. Read company terms and conditions in detail.
  4. Stay informed of the status of your shared data.

1.Your data belongs to you.

It is your data and it belongs to you, period. Businesses require your consent to get your data. However, when you sign company terms and conditions, you agree to their data sharing stipulations. Your data rights change during this transaction.

The most appropriate methods business can ask for your data are through pop-up notifications, website cookie settings and website surveys. Here you can opt in or out of data sharing. If you don’t feel comfortable, you can refuse data sharing, which also means you may not be able to engage with that business.

2.Ask companies what they will do with your data.

It is important to know the mechanism that companies will be adopting for collecting, storing, and using data. You can ask the company why they need your data in the first place, and whether or not it will be shared with associated data aggregators as per ethical sharing policies. Learn what companies do with your data.

A business can ask you for your residential address, without which you won’t be able to receive their product. An unethical data practice is for a business to ask for your location, even though it isn’t required to provide you with their services.

3.Read company terms and conditions in detail.

Before mindlessly clicking the Agree button under the Terms and Conditions, did you actually take time to read and understand how the business will be collecting, storing, and processing your data? According to a 2017 survey, 91% of customers consented to the terms of services without reading, and unknowingly, you might have done the same.

Businesses use overly complex language to write and explain their terms of service and privacy policy, making it extremely difficult for an average person to understand them. This can even cause ethical implications of its own. If there is something you don’t understand in terms and conditions, ask the company and see how they respond back.

Keep in mind though, that the moment you agree to their terms and conditions, you are essentially giving permission to how they gather, use, store and share your data. 

Best practices when reading company policy on data sharing:

  1. Read the entire terms and conditions document.
  2. Understand how they can use your data.
  3. Learn how often and for how long your data will be used.

If there are things you don’t understand, consult with a lawyer who can explain the nuances of the terms and conditions.

4.Stay informed of the status of your shared data.

Gone are the days when businesses would suffer a data breach and get away with it. GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) has made it obligatory for businesses to notify affected customers and law enforcement authorities within 72 hours in the event of a data security breach.

If you learn of a data breach, contact the business about whether or not your data was affected. And as a rule of thumb, always change your password.

Examples of Data Ethics Violations

There are countless violations of data ethics. Unfortunately, when companies are collecting vast amounts of data, they can misuse your personal data  intentionally or not. Here we discuss how knowingly and accidentally institutes you trusted violated your data ethics.

The Secret Mood Control Experiments of 2012

Back in January 2012, Facebook data scientists conducted a mood control experiment on 689,003 people. The idea was to see the impact when they were shown positive or negative content in their status feeds. Here none of the participants were informed about their participation in this experiment.

According to Facebook’s 9,000 word data-use policy, the company had the legal means to conduct such an experiment. By agreeing to the company’s policies, people had agreed to “data analysis, testing, [and] research.”

Human rights activists found the experiment to be extremely disturbing and in clear violation of people’s morals rights.

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s data Breach.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center through three data breaches between 2012 and 2013, lost 35,000 patients’ medical records. These breaches resulted in the unauthorized disclosure of ePH (Electronic protected health information).

Patient information, including names, medical record numbers, treatment and research information, as well as some Social Security numbers were among the stolen data devices. If your data is shared without your consent, it falls under data ethics breach, even if it was shared unwillingly.

Data Ethics is not just a discipline but a set of core values and ethical considerations that makes businesses safer and fairer with customers. There is no question that data and ethics can go hand in hand, and in reality they should work together. Businesses need to start putting people’s safety before their profits.

To understand more about data ethics and user rights in simple terms, you can read our comprehensive guide on The Invisibly’s Bill of Rights.

Invisibly black logo


See your data work for you.