Bits, Bytes and the Ethics of Data

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Data science, once the domain of math geeks and academics, has moved from windowless basements to the top floors of organizations. If content is king, then data is the emperor.

Data has always informed the work of PR professionals, but the sheer volume of information available today raises new ethical and moral questions about what we collect, curate, share and use.

In fact, the explosive growth of data science, which employs algorithms and scientific methods to extract insights from data, may be part of the problem. In their quest for research funding, some data scientists might forego scientific rigor and ethical considerations. Analyzing this tension in an October 2017 article on, Kalev H. Leetaru, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, wrote that if data scientists don’t ethically consider potential biases and the societal impact of their work, they will likely continue to chase projects that offer the greatest opportunities for funding and publication.

It recently came to light that Cambridge Analytica, a political research firm, had gathered and exploited data on the likes and personalities of tens of millions of American Facebook users, to micro-target political messages to them before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While far from the first scandal involving Facebook and user data, the news brought a deeper problem to the forefront.

Revelations about Cambridge Analytica arrive at a time when organizations are already making privacy changes to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect on May 25. The regulation has reshaped privacy laws across Europe, and also applies to U.S. companies that have web presences in Europe or market products there. Facebook has also updated its privacy policies. While we need measures to safeguard our information, it’s equally important to consider the ethics of the data we curate and use.

In an article on data ethics, researchers Luciano Floridi and Mariarosaria Taddeo of the Oxford Internet Institute note that the growing reliance on algorithms and computers to analyze sensitive personal data, and the gradual reduction of human involvement in automatic processes, pose pressing issues of fairness, responsibility and respect for human rights.

However, the authors believe these ethical challenges can be successfully addressed by balancing the development of data science with respect for human rights.

We all share the responsibility to create 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.” These guidelines extend to the development and application of data.

As PR professionals, we often use social media advertising in our campaigns, and we rely on data and analytics to strategically develop campaigns. We do so in compliance with the rules of each social media platform, and trust that they in turn have adhered to laws and regulations that govern data collection. But amid so many recent breaches of public trust regarding data, it’s time to double down and ensure that data collection and use adhere to our ethics policies.

Karen Swim, APR, is the founder of Words For Hire, where she helps B2B, technology, and health-care clients identify, connect and engage their targeted audiences. She is also president of Solo PR Pro and a member of the PRSA Board of Ethics & Professional Standards.

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Karen Swim, APR

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