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Could the General Data Protection Regulation Be the First Step Toward Real Data Protection?

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If you search the internet for your personal data, stop. It’s already in the possession of companies, and no number of removal requests will change that. The real concern should be whether executives at these companies are considering the ethical use of consumer data.

Consider this scenario: if your company’s data could potentially help cure cancer, do you have an ethical obligation to share that data even if the source of the data prefers you not to? Is it acceptable to profit from someone’s data without their consent? Or if you work at a health insurance company, and someone is denied coverage because they have searched “cancer” too many times, what should you do?

This is the data dilemma that business leaders are confronting. The issue isn’t the collection of data; it’s how the data is used.

A Question of Right and Wrong

Many Americans see the handling of their data as a black-and-white issue, with 43 percent of them disliking their digital devices monitoring their activities, even when that data could be beneficial on a personal or societal level.

But how can data collection be morally questionable when it forms the backbone of so many services we rely on? Think about the number of lives and fuel saved by Google Maps’ turn-by-turn directions, the jobs found through applicant-matching software, and the human connections formed through social media platforms that suggest friends.

When used responsibly, data can do a great deal of good and is crucial to today’s economy. Just as oil fueled the Industrial Revolution, data enables personalized digital services from Spotify to Google to Amazon. Prohibiting data collection would stifle innovation and progress.

However, data can also cause significant harm. Dictators exploit data to suppress dissent, social media platforms use data to sell targeted ads that divide societies, and companies like Equifax have compromised millions of Americans’ financial data.

Merely collecting consumer data is morally neutral, but when that data is used in ways that benefit some while harming others, ethical problems arise. This is what needs to be regulated.

A Framework for Ethical Data Use

On May 25, the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation as an attempt to balance data’s innovative potential with its potential for abuse. The GDPR establishes a formal system of checks and balances and grants EU citizens certain rights over their data, including the “right to be forgotten,” “right to access,” “right to correct,” and “right to object.” Companies collecting or processing their data will be accountable for protecting consumers’ privacy and preventing breaches.

However, it is essential for companies that collect and use data to take responsibility. Many are currently gathering consumers’ data without a clear purpose and some are unaware of how they will utilize the information in the future.

One such example is Facebook, known for extensive data collection, which may be unnecessary and possibly unethical. Storing unnecessary information not only goes against ethical principles but also poses a security risk for both consumers and the collecting companies.

Prior to data collection, corporate leaders must consider whether it aligns with their business mission and vision. If it isn’t usable at present, it shouldn’t be hoarded for future use. If it is useful today, the collected data should be anonymized, used in a way that benefits the consumer, and discarded when no longer necessary.

However, most companies are not following these principles, leading to a lack of trust from consumers. To bridge this trust gap, companies must be transparent about why and how data is collected, how it benefits consumers, and the steps taken to protect their privacy.

Despite companies seeking consent and sharing data use details through end user licensing agreements (EULAs) and similar privacy agreements, these agreements tend to be overly broad, leaving consumers with little leverage against companies that use their data unethically or unlawfully.

Although breaches cannot be entirely prevented, companies can consider anonymizing and open-sourcing all consumer data to render breached information useless. This would require collective decision-making on how the data should be used and would offer greater protection against unethical practices.

The ethical dilemma surrounding data won’t be resolved overnight, but it must be addressed. Without companies taking better care of consumers’ data, governments or the free market will intervene to regulate its use.

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