Data science once the domain of math geeks and academia has moved from the windowless basement to the top floor of organizations. If content is king, data is the emperor. Data has always informed the work of public relations professionals, but the sheer volume of information available today raises a new set of ethical and moral questions about what we collect, curate, share, and use.
In fact, the explosive growth of data science may be part of the problem. Data is worth money and in the quest for funding, scientific rigor (and ethical considerations) may fall by the wayside. In an analysis of this tension, Kalev Leetaru, a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security writes “if data scientists are not required to infuse ethical review, replication, algorithmic bias testing and consideration of societal impact into their work, it is likely they will continue to chase the projects with the greatest publication and funding opportunities.
It recently came to light that Cambridge Analytica, a political research firm, purchased information on more than 50 million Facebook users. The company used the information to micro-target voters in US elections. This is far from the first scandal involving Facebook and data, but it brings to the forefront a deeper problem.
The revelations about Cambridge Analytica come at a time when organizations have made privacy changes to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), that reshapes privacy laws across Europe (and has an impact around the globe). In recent weeks, we have been flooded with notices regarding new privacy policies and information about how our data is used.
Mary Meeker’s 2018 Internet Trends Report highlighted the tension between data privacy and innovation noting that data and data sharing drive innovation and improved product experiences for consumers, but it is still crucial “to manage for unintended consequences.” We need policies to safeguard our information but it is equally important to examine the ethical considerations on what we curate and use.
In an Oxford Internet Institute article on data ethics, Luciano Floridi and Mariarosaria Taddeo note, “The extensive use of increasingly more data—often personal, if not sensitive (big data)—and the growing reliance on algorithms to analyse them in order to shape choices and to make decisions (including machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics), as well as the gradual reduction of human involvement or even oversight over many automatic processes, pose pressing issues of fairness, responsibility and respect of human rights, among others.” However, the authors believe that these ethical challenges can be successfully addressed by balancing the development of data science and the respect for human rights.
We all share in the responsibility of creating an ethical framework for data use and practices. In fact, the PRSA code of Ethics holds us accountable to “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent.” We are further charged with “preserving the integrity of the process of information.” This fully extends to the development and application of data.
Many public relations professionals use social advertising, email marketing, and media monitoring in our day to day work. We rely on data and analytics to strategically develop campaigns and make decisions about the work we do. We use tools, apps and websites and trust that all adhere to laws and regulations that govern data collection. However, with so many breaches of public trust, it is time to double down and ensure that the collection and use of data adhere to our ethics policies.
We would love to hear from you. How do you deal with “the privacy paradox” as Mary Meeker describes it? Have you changed the way you gather or use data? Share in the comments below or on social media using the hashtag #solopr.