On Human-Centered Business Ethics (Part 2): A Hard-Line Position on Data

Posted: September 15, 2018 in My moral code
Tags: , , , , ,

Back in July I saw an article in Wired asking the question:

“WAS IT ETHICAL FOR DROPBOX TO SHARE CUSTOMER DATA WITH SCIENTISTS?”

You can easily find that online.

What I wanted to share today is that I take a pretty hardline data privacy position and I answer the question with an unequivocal “NO”.

Here’s why:

Say I have a car. Is it mine? I say “yes”.

Suppose I park it in a big parking lot, for example at Disneyland. Is it still mine? “Yes”.

Now, let’s say I paint the car, remove the VIN, take off the license plates, add a bunch of after-market accessories, hit it with a sledgehammer a few times, and change the wheels. Is the car still mine? Of course it is.

In any of those scenarios can someone just decide to take my car and use it for a scientific experiment without my consent? Nope.

Why is my data any different?

In my view, it’s not. I own my data and no matter how you repaint it and “anonymize” it, it’s still mine. In fact, any decent data security guy will tell you that it’s virtually impossible to actually anonymize my data, to remove all identifying information linking it to me. That would be like making all those changes to my car and then having to insure that there is no trace of my DNA left in it. Completely anonymizing my Facebook data or everything in my Dropbox would be an edge case at best. It’s likely not going to be possible.

So, you can’t remove my identity and use my data anymore than you can remove my VIN and use my car, without my consent. That is blatantly unethical.

Now, you might say that I have agreed in some license agreement that my data is different. Why?

When I park my car in that parking lot I get an agreement too. But I don’t need an attorney to help me decide whether or not to park there. If you give me a 50 page legal document to read before handing over my data then you are putting me in an impossible position. You are assuming, rightly, that I won’t understand what I’m agreeing to. That is a common but unworkable business practices and that is not ethical either.

We may have gigabytes of data in the depths of the internet. But, we are still humans and that means we are fallible. I’m your customer and, yes, I’m fallible. Taking advantage of your customer’s fallibility is not an ethical business practice.

Bring on the comments and disputation!

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Comments
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