Data, including consumers’ opinions and sometimes their more personal information, is central to what we do as Market Researchers. Reputable Market Research companies, led by industry organizations such as Insights Association and ESOMAR, adhere to strict guidelines and standards to ensure that we act ethically and responsibly with the data we collect from consumers. It’s not surprising, then, that we were captivated by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony at the Congressional hearings about Facebook and how it does (or doesn’t) safeguard its users’ data.

Almost to a person, the Senators and Congressmen expressed what has probably been on many people’s minds (yet is rarely said openly for fear of being labeled a Luddite, technologically illiterate, or worse); namely that data collection may not always be a “good deal” for the people who provide their personal information, and that some companies engaged in data collection and analysis may be operating unethically. The not very positive press from the Facebook hearings (and the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations) is leading to an awakening and, perhaps even, a coming sea-change with respect to peoples’ view of their personal data and the companies that collect it.

What we’re seeing is likely the beginning of a real national debate on privacy and data ownership. At its core lies the question of whether companies have policies and systems in place to protect the data they are collecting to ensure that it is used only as consented by those providing it, and only as intended by the company collecting it.

We Should View This as an Opportunity

As an industry we market researchers have always, and will continue to, address the situation forthrightly to ensure that the erosion of trust in those who collect data is not unfairly aimed at members of our community. In fact, the current discussion about the ethics of data provides opportunity for those of us who are, indeed, acting ethically and in good faith; opportunity to ensure that consumers are comfortable sharing their opinions and data with us, and that they feel the effort is mutually beneficial. How?

By Being Transparent With Survey Participants

It is imperative that we always express clearly and openly as individuals, as Market Research companies and as an industry, our commitment to protecting whatever data we collect. When we ask a consumer to take a survey, participate in a focus group or engage with a market research company in any way, he or she should be made well-aware beforehand of our dedication to protecting the data that is rightfully theirs.

By Continuing to Adhere to Our Industry’s Rigorous Standards

The Insights Association’s CASRO Code of Standards and Ethics, which is currently being updated to reflect recent developments in research and analytics technologies and techniques, states that:

“Research organizations have ethical and legal responsibilities to research participants. These ethical and legal responsibilities must be disclosed to research participants, thereby forming a “chain of trust” relationship between research organizations and research participants. The research process is a systematic collection, aggregation, and/or analysis of opinions and behaviors for informational purposes. The protections of personal information are governed by the principles of participant privacy and confidentiality, and the aggregation and reporting of research data. The purpose of research is informational; there is no direct commercial intent or direct result in the activity of research. The research activity shall be the primary and prevailing purpose of the contact with the individual, and it is always separate and distinct from direct marketing, sales, and advertising activities. Research informs marketing; it does not achieve it.”

 By Documenting and Following Strict Internal Data Security Practices

Companies committed to the ethical handling of others’ data must be willing to dedicate real resources and not merely lip service towards the effort. Information Security teams are tasked with creating and documenting data security processes, and finding a way to share this knowledge within the organization. In the end, however, the actual task of securing data is the job of everyone involved in the data collection and analysis process.

It’s a Big Deal, and We Have an Important Role to Play

How the ongoing debate on data privacy pans out is anyone’s guess. But what’s clear is that we’ve entered a new chapter in the story of technology.  One in which consumers, corporations and government have a more informed and sophisticated view about the implications of data collection and its effects on both individuals and society. And with that sophistication comes a new-found confidence to uncover and challenge those who may be using data unfairly.

Market Researchers, we who are committed to using consumers’ data only to help better their experiences with products and services, must stand as a shining example of the ethical use of data and personal information. Our future depends on it.