Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

All About Ethics Blog

Ethical Data Collection

Ethical Data Collection

Ethical Data Collection

When we discuss the ethical issues raised by how companies are using the data they collect, we often think of how an individual interacts with a business; for example, is a patient informed about research his or her health care provider may be doing on blood samples, or does a search engine user want Google to scan emails to see what products the user may be interested in?  

But at a recent meeting of the Center's Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership, Scott Shipman, general counsel and chief privacy officer at Sensity Systems, pointed out that many times, the company collecting data may be dealing with another company or government entity.  Then, the final use to which the data is put may not even be understood by the individual whose data is being collected.

Summarizing Shipman's remarks, writer Margaret Steen observes:

Shipman...has a job that illustrates both the promise and the risks of using big data. Sensity is an Internet of Things company, capitalizing on the transition to LED lighting to create Light Sensory Networks that will allow cities and other entities to deliver both energy-efficient lighting and a real-time, global database of information that allows customers to manage and understand their physical environment for greater productivity, efficiency and security. He was hired as chief privacy officer to build and govern a global privacy program, in which he will establish data protection standards and lead industry-wide privacy initiatives.

One of the issues, Shipman said, is defining the audience. For companies like his, the customers — those who purchase the product — are not the only ones affected by it. “To improve operations and efficiency of a city, for example, it’s important to understand how city assets are used – roads, parking spots, utilities, etc. This means collecting data on behalf of our customer – the city – from the end user who is not our customer. Often it’s the non-customer that is misinformed,” he said. “You have to keep those perceptions in mind as well.”
Shipman was one of three participants in the panel Ethical Uses of Collected Data; the others were Shannon Vallor, associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and MeMe Jacobs Rasmussen, chief privacy officer at Adobe Systems. Irina Raicu, Internet ethics program director at the Center, moderated.  

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