Thoughts on the Data Innovation Pledge

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Yesterday, as he accepted the IAPP Privacy Vanguard award, Intel’s David Hoffman made a “data innovation pledge” that he would work only to promote ethical and innovative uses of data. As someone who only relatively recently entered the privacy world by diving headfirst into the sea of challenges surrounding big data, I think an affirmative pledge of the sort David is proposing is a great idea.

While pledges can be accused of being mere rhetorical flourishes, words do matter. A simple pledge can communicate a good deal — and engage the public in a way that drives conversation forward. Think of Google’s early motto to “don’t be evil.” For years this commitment fueled a large reservoir of trust that many have for the company. With every new product and service that Google releases, its viewed through the lens of whether or not its “evil.” That places a high standard on the folks at Google, and for that, we should pleased.

Of course, pledges present obligations and challenges. Using data only for good presents a host a new questions. As FPF explored in our whitepaper on benefit-risk analysis for Big Data, there are different aspects to consider when evaluating the benefits of data use — and some of these factors are largely subjective. Ethics is a broad field, and it also exposes the challenging philosophical underpinnings of privacy.

The very concept of privacy has always been a philosophical conundrum, but so much of the rise of the privacy profession has focused on compliance issues and the day-to-day reality of data protection. But today, we’re swimming in a sea of data, and all of this information makes us more and more transparent to governments, industry, and each other. It’s the perfect catalyst to consider what the value of “privacy” truly is. Privacy as an information on/off switch may be untenable, but privacy as a broader ethical code makes a lot of sense.

There are models to learn from. As David points out, other professions are bound by ethical codes, and much of that seeps into how we think about privacy. Doctors not only pledge to do no harm, but they also pledge to keep our confidences about our most embarrassing or serious health concerns. Questionable practices around innovation and data in the medical field led to review boards to protect patients and human test subjects and reaffirmed the role of every medical professional to do no evil.

Similar efforts are needed today as everything from our wristwatches to our cars is “datafied.” In particular, I think about all of the debates that have swirled around the use of technology in the classroom in recent years. A data innovation pledge could help relieve worried parents. If Monday’s FTC workshop is indication, similar ethical conversations may even be needed for everyday marketing and advertising.

The fact is that there are a host of different data uses that could benefit from greater public confidence. A data innovation pledge is a good first start. There is no question that companies need to do more to show the public how they are promoting innovative and ethical uses of data. Getting that balance right is tough, but here’s to privacy professionals helping to lead that effort!

-Joseph Jerome, Policy Counsel