In an age of digital transformation, the ability of businesses to collect data – Big Data – on its customers is unparalleled in human history. Virtually everything about customers can be elicited, monitored, and analyzed, ranging from credit card numbers to family medical histories and shopping patterns. As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes an increasing part of the daily life of American citizens, the ability of technology in business to track their customers on an unprecedented scale will only become greater.
Concerns, Challenges, & Unintended Consequences
The ability to collect a tremendous amount of data on customers raises a substantial number of issues concerning corporate social responsibility. While most observers would agree that corporate social responsibility should cover the ethical issues involved in Big Data collection, there are many challenges as Big Data becomes a norm.
Some of the challenges are the result of digital advances outstripping the ability of corporations to effectively institute safeguards against ethical breaches. While there is certainly agreement on the ethics of keeping data accurate, safe, and private, for example, data breaches at Target and multiple other organizations show that the technology guarding privacy is not always an adequate defense technology against the technology seeking unethical entrance.
Other issues, though, center around the fact that norms and laws are still grappling with the reach of digital transformation and with its effects, intended or unintended.
Facial recognition technology in retail stores, for example, is intended to optimize shopping for customers. Their preferences can be known by every store employee, who can then serve them efficiently. However, might customers want their privacy safeguarded? No official consent is required for facial recognition technology. Is it possible that customers will find sales pitches based on past preferences intrusive or limiting? Might customer profiling technology drive more deep profiling? Indeed, the Harvard Business Review recently reported that one of the unanticipated effects of retail store technology is refractive surveillance, where the systems used on customers are then used to more aggressively monitor employees.
The unintended consequences, of course, exist in far more serious form as well. What if digital delivery of newspapers is combined with algorithms that ensure delivery of news in which a customer has demonstrated interest – but inadvertently deprives that customer of information she or he may want, but has simply never pursued previously? Does increased ease of medical access via Skype and laptop mean that people can be profiled unfavorably – and potentially denied health care or insurance as a result of conditions monitored, tracked, and analyzed digitally?
How to Ensure Corporate Responsibility
Given the range of potential scenarios, there is widespread agreement that standards for corporate responsibility are needed. Indeed, three professional organizations, the Data Science Association, the American Statistical Association, and the Digital Analytics Association, have come up with guidelines.
InformationWeek recommends several methods to ensure proper ethical use of Big Data. One is to develop and ensure a culture of responsibility. The reach of Big Data is large enough that it’s socially responsible use is the domain not only of IT, but of everyone. The C-suite should promulgate the importance of social responsibility. Employees may see unintended consequences before management does, and they need to feel free to speak up if customers’ privacy or respect is an issue.
And on the respect front … InformationWeek suggests a simple test to enable companies to develop robust corporate responsibility. Companies should treat employees as the people within those companies would want to be treated. If a digital innovation results in disrespectful or intrusive treatment, it needs to be changed.
One of the advantages of sophisticated technology, after all, is that it can be improved for mutual benefit. As the digital transformation evolves, users of business technology need to live up to a high corporate social responsibility standard that will ensure optimal treatment of their customers.