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ICO reaffirms the importance of the ethical use of personal data

Your organisation will have thought about the lawful use of personal data. However, has it considered the increasingly crucial issue of ethical use?

Data = value. This is unquestionable. By the end of 2020, over 2.5 quintillion bytes of personal data were being created per day while it has been reported that the value of personal data within the EU (pre-Brexit) was in the region of one trillion euros. The pandemic has increased such value, with an estimated 4.66 billion active internet users.

The value of data is acute within most sectors. Data science is at the forefront of most industries, ranging from analytics, AI and telematics to assist with customer acquisition and product development, to pricing to risk management.

However, as with all developments, the downside cannot be ignored, ranging from lack of transparency to unavailability of services to discrimination and cyber liability. Business benefits may, unchecked, lead to potential societal detriment, so ethical treatment of data is of paramount importance.

Your organisation will have thought long and hard about the lawful use of personal data. However, has it considered the increasingly crucial issue of ethical use?

The ICO has been concerned about this issue for some time, evidenced by its appointment of a Data Ethics Advisor in 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic slowed the ICO’s progress in this area. However, it has recently been confirmed that data ethics is back on the agenda.

The ICO has stated that it recognises that the issues surrounding the ethical use of personal data, being a broad area, have many alignments and similarities with its own responsibilities – which is undoubtedly the case. That said, it has also stated that it has taken the decision (some would say sensibly at this juncture) to continue to be involved in the “debate”, although it will not publish guidance materials at this stage.

Furthermore, although the ICO will endeavour to highlight work in the field which it views as helpful, it will not take the lead in relation to such issues. Albeit, it is clear that the ICO views that a focus should be placed on the fairness, potential harm and risk attached to the use of data – with particular attention drawn to the potential algorithmic bias and discrimination.

Therefore, although not prescriptive, the ICO’s key concerns and perceived importance of the ethical use of data is clear and the law is likely to be interpreted with this in mind. It is undoubtedly an important consideration for your organisation, being a caretaker and guardian of the personal data it holds - compliance with data protection laws is a given. However, ethics are as important in relation to data use.

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