Is Data Collection Ever Ethical?

By Brittany Vernon

With the help of technology, data collection has become easier and more efficient than ever. Gone are the days where physical surveys and census forms are needed for marketers to collect information. Through analytics, tracking pixels and beacons, as well as data mining, digital marketers have access to an abundance of specific information about their target audience and potential customers.

However, easier data collection creates a greater chance for the collected data to be misused.

In the digital age, data collection has become more automated and implicit than earlier forms of collection. The average smartphone user is unconsciously sending companies large amounts of data during every moment of their day. Whether you are watching cat videos online or visiting your favorite restaurant, records of your data and browsing habits are constantly being traced through technological devices. This creates an ethical issue because data buyers and sellers  are everywhere and have the potential to impact all aspects of life.

Information is valuable

One of a business’ most valuable assets is their access to their customers’ and potential customer’s data. Establishing patterns and consumer behaviour can help you better understand their interests, wants and needs. It also helps sell more by advertising more accurately and targeting users based on their online persona and browsing habits. 

Methods to collect data

There are several ways to collect data from customers. However, we’ll narrow the focus to implicit data; data collected and received from website user tracking with analytics.

Online Tracking

This is an effective method applicable to websites and apps. Accessing this data allows you to collect quantitative data on users visiting your site. Online tracking allows you to see how many people visited your site, how long they were on it, what they clicked on and more.

Marketing Analytics

Keeping track of marketing analytics is a great way to gauge the success of your online campaigns. Marketing analytics, similar to online tracking, involves collecting data based on ads a business runs. Ads through email, website, social media or search engines can be traced to give you data about who clicked on your ads, what times they clicked and which devices they used.

Social Media Tracking

This is perhaps the most common way to collect online data. Social media provides a rich source of information about users’ location, interests and demographic statistics, for example (location, age and gender). Using this data, businesses can determine who their target demographic is, where they are, and how users are interacting with the business’s content. Post engagements and shares are monitored to determine the post’s performance as well as searching the brand’s name often, setting up notifications or using third-party social media monitoring software.

Customers expect Trust

A Canadian survey determined that 90% of consumers would cut ties with a company if they found out a company is using their data unethically. This survey also determined that 79% of Canadians inherently trust healthcare organizations to uphold their ethical obligations when it comes to their data. This means that securing users’ data is connected to consumer retention. Consumer trust stems from privacy and transparency practiced by the business. Consumers want to be informed where their information is going, what it is being used for, and they expect their information will be protected from data breaches.

What should Marketers know?

Ethics and socially responsible marketing go hand in hand. Socially responsible marketing entails a brand advertising their marketing, charitable efforts, or ethical practices. It is important that businesses are transparent with their customers to avoid loss of trust and credibility. To better understand what ethical methods of data collection marketers should know what qualifies as unethical data collection. The following are tactics marketers should avoid.

Avoid Deceptive Practices

The ease of data collection may lead a business to downplay how much information they are actually gathering from customers and what it’s being used for. Sugging is defined as the practice of selling data under the guise of research. User data is often sold to other companies for their own target marketing purposes, advertising to people that have never actually engaged with their brand or searched for their product. To maintain customer trust, businesses should always tell customers when their information is being collected and for which specific reason. For example, a pop-up on a website to inform customers that information is stored when they visit their website.

Avoid Privacy Invasion

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) applies to the entirety of Canada and states fair information principles for businesses when collecting data. Incompliance with this act includes:

  • collecting, using or disclosing personal information in ways that are unlawful

  • profiling or categorizing individuals in a way that leads to unfair, unethical or discriminatory treatment

  • collecting, using or disclosing personal information for purposes that may cause significant harm to someone

A rule of thumb for businesses to avoid invasion of privacy deception is to keep the data collected within the context that it was collected for. Businesses should identify and document their purposes for collecting personal information prior to collecting the data. In addition, identify which specific personal information to collect in order to fulfill the determined purposes.

Digital data collection is the present and the future for marketers and businesses to build a loyal consumer base. Ethical data collection connects to customer retention as it fosters trust between businesses and customers. Ethical data collection cannot exist without transparency from the business. Always inform customers about your intentions and purposes for collecting their data. 

For more information about socially responsible marketing,  check out this article.