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How to be ethical with data and gain your customers' trust

Nick Bromley, a privacy consultant for the Greater London Authority, spoke at the NextGen 2014 conference (opens in new tab) about the importance of being an ethical company when it comes to gathering data on your customers, and how to retain their trust when it comes to data. ITProPortal was on the ground to learn more.

“If you look at the example of Estonia,” Nick told us during his keynote, “they used to have an authoritarian regime in which personal privacy wasn’t guaranteed by law. So they’re very happy to have personal privacy today, but the most important thing in Estonia is transparency. So for instance a tax official can check your personal details, but if he does so, you’re notified that he’s checked it.”

“It’s similar with speed cameras,” he went on. “If you want to reduce speeding, you have to tell people that there’s a speed camera in a certain place. So privacy is important in Estonia, but transparency is what really makes it work. I think they’re leading the world, along with Germany, in how we treat personal privacy.”

Nick drew a strong line between the spectacular overreach of UK and US intelligence organisations and the unfortunate scourge of companies acting cavalierly with their customers’ data.

“I’m sure everyone’s heard of Edward Snowden, and one of the most interesting things to come out of Laura Poitras’ recent film Citizen 4 is that not only are the government watching, but the scary thing is you don’t know when they’re watching.”

So what advice did Nick have for business leaders on how to gain their customers’ trust when it comes to sharing data?

“Companies have to be clear in communication as to the source of data, as well as when, where and how your data might be used. You have to have a balanced relationship with the provider of the data, not an asymmetric one. That means that if someone sees a benefit to providing their data, and you can offer them a clear advantage, then they’re quite happy to go along with it. Organisations like GCHQ engage in a kind of bullying, in an asymmetric relationship with the providers of the data they use.”

So what does it mean to be an ethical data gatherer?

“An ethical organisation will never make a backroom deal to share data with partners. So do we want democracy on the Estonian model, or do we want an authoritarian state? Unfortunately I think we’re sleepwalking into the second one. The government of the future has to think clearly and engage in dialogue with us over exactly how we want our data to be used. What GCHQ and other spy organisations are doing is quite simply an infringement of my human rights.”

Scary stuff! What do you think makes a real ethical data company? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, or stop by for a chat on ITProPortal’s 24/7 Tech Talk function, found in the bottom left of the page.

Stay tuned for more of ITProPortal’s coverage of the NextGen 14 conference in Derby, for all the greatest insights into public sector, data and the world of tomorrow.

Paul has worked as an archivist, editor and journalist, and has a PhD in the cultural and literary significance of ruins. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The BBC, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Discover Magazine, and he was previously Staff Writer and Journalist at ITProPortal.