Data ethics and GDPR

Why we need to think about the rightness and wrongness of data use

With an enforcement date of May 25, this year's General Data Protection Regulations are forcing all of us to think again about the processes by which we handle data. But along with the how of data use, we should also reflect on the rightness and wrongness  - or deontology - of why we use data, as communication and ROI strategist Assaël Adary argues in this interview with Jocelyn Munoz.


Assaël, the digitalisation of the world, the flood of information and data anywhere, anytime – all these factors ensure that the ethics of data are becoming increasingly important. In your recently- published manual about data ethics, you point out the necessity of an ethical production and a careful use of data in order to safeguard the protection of consumer privacy. Your book thereby addresses new professionals, the “data deontologists”. But what is data deontology? And, what would be the competencies required for this emerging job?

We are faced with a tsunami of data, which is partly composed of our personal data. Today, public and private companies (and not only the GAFA) must integrate the question of data into their CSR system. Just as companies must have their financial accounts assessed and validated by auditors, so must their data production and expression be regulated by data experts

The data deontologist could play this role, either as a collaborator within his/her company or as an external consultant (an impartial third party). The GDPR, which is to be enforced in May 2018, also incorporates a very similar function in its regulations, referred to as the data protection officer.

Data deontologists must have the necessary technical skills to be able to interact with the data analyst/scientist, a dose of legal knowledge, strong communication skills with the data user functions to understand their uses and their needs, and finally a significant soft skill: ethics. Could we do what we do with the data, using the “ethics” lens? This is the key idea behind ​​"privacy by design", i.e. building process by taking into account ethics throughout the whole process, which is also included in the GDPR.

Data deontologists finally have the role of saving the subject of big data itself: in the end, do we want a company that benefits from the uses of big data or do we want bug data?

You also blog on data deontology. Where does your activism on this subject come from?

The principle of a blog is to be able to bounce easily and quickly on a news. Yet, data is at the heart of our daily lives. Every day, news related to data protection emerge. It was interesting to reveal and analyse simply and regularly the misuses of big data: connected objects, data and health, etc.

Beyond the enrichment of the blog, more deeply, my activism comes from the practice of my profession: opinion studies! For 22 years, I have been campaigning through my job to deliver 'fairness' to our our customers, and not only data. I find it increasingly difficult to bring this fairness, for we are swimming in an ocean of 'fake data' (including misinterpreted data).

Big data is a recurrent topic in the news, impacting many professions and many aspects of daily life. To what extent does it affect the communication director’s tasks?

Communication directors are impacted in two ways. First, as a producer of data, especially via the uses of social networks. They must then integrate the data competence into their teams... and therefore the competence of a data deontologist. For instance, at one point, each communication director might decide to purchase “fake” or not, notably fake-followers, fake-views on YouTube or even worse, false positive comments about his/her brand...

The second level of impact is the growth of data in companies, which can be associated with reputational bombs for the company. This is another reason why a communicant should learn about data, to understand how it is created, managed, controlled, etc. There are already many cases related to data crises, and more are coming. The communication director must be prepared for it.

To what extent will the GDPR impact the field of data deontology?

I have been working for several years on the concept of data ethics, well before the first debates that have given birth to the GDPR. Hence, I am very pleased to see that the GDPR integrates this concept, and even more with the creation of data protection officer function. This profession is not very far from the data deontologist I first depicted. Both ideas converge. Nevertheless, I think that data protection officers should not be limited to a role as a legal expert. He should own an ethical dimension that goes far beyond the dimension of respect for laws and regulations.

To finish with, would you describe yourself as optimistic when it comes to the future of the big data and the good use of data?

My position is uncertain. We are at the crossroads. Big data will become what we will do with it: for better or for worst. And this decision is not only related to a regulation or a law, but to the accumulation of individual practices.

Interview by Jocelyn Munoz

Image: Thinkstock