It often comes down to ethical principles to help a brand establish trust and reputation and develop brand identity.
What bothered Richards about the Target case was not just that the company knew more about the pregnant girl than her family did, but also what it did in response to the backlash that inevitably followed.
"When they realized people were getting freaked out by getting formula coupons, they then started sending out a full page of coupons with formula prominently displayed but surrounded by 'guy stuff' like lawn mower blades," he said. "They were still using the data, but now there was a level of deception to it as well."
Gartner has a suite of best practices it recommends as a way to avoid these sorts of problems, and they figured prominently on the agenda for its Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit going on in Munich this week. The bottom line is that companies must be transparent and communicate with consumers about what they're doing with the data, Duncan said.
"If you're using social science tools like big data, you have to be a good social scientist," Richards agreed. "All the things academic social scientists and data scientists have been worrying about, like selection biases, companies now have to worry about, too."
And because the law still lags behind in this area, "you can't just hire a lawyer and say, 'give us compliance,'" he said. "The good news is, there seems to be a real competitive opportunity for the companies that can get out ahead on ethics."
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.