In a recent Infosys global survey, 39 percent of the respondents said that they consider data mining invasive. And 72 percent said they don't feel that the online promotions or emails they receive speak to their personal interests and needs. Yet, Sivaram says, "consumers are willing to part with personal information, provided there's good reason to."
The result is a high-tech Catch-22: On the one hand, consumers want to receive highly targeted and personalized products and services. On the other hand, they don't want to feel as if their personal data is up for commercial grabs.
"Retailers need to do a much better job of using the data that they already have to reach their customers," says Sivaram. "At the same time, they have to be careful about being seen as invasive because they don't want to get into trouble and lose the trust of their customers."
So what's the solution? According to Sivaram, the answer is for big data collectors "to establish the right incentives" for people to divulge their personal details. For example, by showing people that sharing their information can earn them loyalty points or discounts, companies can create greater value for their customers while converting consumer trust into a competitive advantage.
The same rule of reciprocity applies to online content as well. Says BlueKai's Tawakol: "When we have asked people in surveys, 'Would you prefer to pay for your content or would you prefer to have targeted ads alongside your content?' it's usually in the high 90 percent of people who would prefer sponsored content."
Setting a code of conduct
However, not everyone believes that the burden should be placed on consumers to blithely agree to share their data, decipher confusing privacy policies or swap credit scores for grocery coupons. For example, Michael Walker says that big data professionals should adopt a code of ethics. A managing partner at Rose Business Technologies, a Denver-based systems integrator and IT services provider, Walker has drafted a 12-page data science code of professional conduct covering everything from the role of data scientists to their daily responsibilities (see story below).
"Companies are starting to understand the danger of secondary uses of information and how people's personal data can be abused," says Walker. "Once they start to think about it, they're very much in favor of an ethical code."
In fact, in an August 2013 survey conducted by statistical software company Revolution Analytics, 80 percent of the respondents said they agreed that there should be an ethical framework for collecting and using data. And more than half of data scientists surveyed agreed that ethics already play a big part in their research.
"My solution is to have some sort of code of professional conduct that data scientists would voluntarily agree to follow to protect people's private data," says Walker. By creating a kind of Hippocratic Oath for analytics professionals, Walker says data scientists will have both the moral and legal grounds for refusing to slice and dice numbers in ways that threaten to violate consumer privacy rights.
Walker isn't the first to conceive of a code of ethics for analysts. Earlier this year, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) drafted a code of ethics to accompany the launch of its Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) certification program.