The debacle over Facebook user data is illustrative of governance and strategic issues that many companies will face as we deepen our relationship with technology.
To recap in broad strokes, the story hit the news when The Observer reported that a Cambridge University academic, Aleksandr Kogan, had obtained the data of 50 million Facebook users through a company he founded called Global Science Research, and then passed the information to political consulting company Cambridge Analytica.
The data was then used as part of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign.
Arguments over who did, and did not, have permission to own or use the data will continue for some time. Already the fallout has been painful for those involved. Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, has been suspended; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to publicly defend his company’s conduct. Reputations are fragile and, ironically, in the social media age, bad news travels far and wide.
Data governance lessons
So what do we learn? To date, governance concerns about digital information has so far mostly focused on security: how do you keep bad people from breaking into your systems and hijacking your customers’ information.
What the Facebook case tells us is that governance of customer information, and the ethics of how that data can be used, are going to be front and centre in the digital age. These issues will matter just as much as security.
These are not old questions—this is well-trodden ground. But what they tell us is that ethics, and the processes to back those values, are not developing as fast as valuable datasets can be amassed.
And this is crucial, because we are told that the growth of data is the new oil boom. There isn’t a day goes by when someone, somewhere, doesn’t put out a press release suggesting that intangibles, like data, are the new cornerstone business asset.
However, in the rush to collect, analyse and profit from data, some companies are perhaps forgetting to ask some big questions about transparency and rights over its use. And these issues will become even bigger as companies come to rely ever more on data as the core of their business models.
That leaves boards with their own big questions. The Facebook debacle makes it urgent that directors get a grip on their data policies and ethics. That they fully understand who has control and accountability for customer data.
Fail to do that and Facebook won’t be the last big data scoop for the newspapers.