The Ethics of Data Quality

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By Elliot King

Technical people often don’t seem too interested in ethical issues related to their work. Discussions of right and wrong are often “squishy.” Too frequently, they have no clear answers and the answer can change from one context to another. In contrast, technical people like to deal with facts. They like clear outcomes–it worked or it didn’t work–without

any value judgments attached.

Perhaps the most profound ethical discussion associated with a significant
technical advancement was the one scientists engaged in when they developed the
atomic bomb. Was it right to contribute to the building of the most destructive
weapon in human history–a weapon that could destroy the earth? The argument that
the atomic bomb was the inevitable result of technical advances is just not
compelling or satisfactory.

While certainly not as momentous as the debates about the atomic bomb or those
debated in bioethics, like it or not, data quality professionals face ethical
questions everyday. These questions revolve around privacy, data integrity,
security, retention, access and so on.

Take the issue of privacy, for example. As we know in industries ranging from
health care to financial, there are a slew of legal standards that companies
have to meet. But beyond that, companies must decide exactly what data they
collect about their customer or clients and why? Should your company routinely
collect and store social security numbers, for example? If so, why? The question
is not just one of legal liability but the ethics of putting your customers at
unnecessary risk.

Similar sorts of ethical questions can be raised around data retention policies.
Once again there are legal restrictions–in certain fields, records must be
retained for legally determined periods of time–but there are also questions of
right and wrong. Beyond your legal obligations, how much of your data should be
retained for what period of time and why?

Incorporating the idea of ethics into your data management decision-making
processes will help make your decisions more deliberative. Facing ethical
concerns forces people to confront not only what they are required to do but
what they should do as well.