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Behavioral Ethics of Data Science – Setting Standards on Acquisition, Usage and Execution
Behavioral Ethics of Data Science – Setting Standards on Acquisition, Usage, and Execution
In this article: An outline of how Data Professionals need to conduct themselves in the age of Big Data Analytics

Never before in history has there been such an abundance of data available to everyone. This data resides in multiple complex formats, and is available in many different ways, shapes and forms.

Ironically, there has never been a better time to achieve business impact with data. Given this proliferation of data, computing power has risen exponentially and the “art” of data science management has given way to new perspectives on acquiring, managing, and using data through sophisticated analytical tools to improve your company’s competitive and financial positioning. This includes automated acquisition tools, analytical methods and employing Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to yield predictable outcomes and patterns around consumer behavior, all resulting in business growth opportunities.

We’ve heard that “data is the new currency” and “knowledge is wealth”, but with this comes a great deal of challenges on how best to harvest this currency and how to invest the wealth to get the greatest return on that investment.

By definition, we essentially all have access to the same vast amounts of data that reside in the real and virtual world. Those that best can extract it the fastest, acquire knowledge from it, and implement and execute actionable tasks are the winners; the ability to do it faster than your competition will differentiate you from your company peers and can help position you as the disruptive force within the industry. But due to the intense pressure of being out “in front” and gaining that competitive edge, how you acquire data can be a slippery slope with respect to integrity, ethics and behavioral aspects.

Unfortunately, in today’s competitive global economy sometimes organizations act first and then ask for forgiveness later – and usually only after costly international legal and lengthy business negotiations pan out (think Facebook and Google data privacy and utilization concerns).
  • There are dozens of examples in history (and currently!) where questionable competitive practices and unscrupulous behaviors exist in the collection and utilization of information from other companies that would normally be protected by established Standards of Business Conduct and trademark / copyright laws. This is most common within environments where there are few (or sometimes no) standards around data usage, especially around social media content. Indeed, many of the social media outlets today are under federal investigation around privacy and data usage concerns surrounding ethical or legal applications. 
  • Moreover, one of the major challenges in tempering this behavior is that there are different social and behavioral norms among countries, as well as different practices across industries. The lack of global standards can make reigning in unethical intelligence behavior challenging when a consistent acceptable behavior level has not been determined universally. 
  • Of course, one of the most obviously questionable data gathering practices is also one of the most widespread: violating security protocols around computer systems (i.e., “hacking”). Hacking is notoriously newsworthy, and can have profound implications for personal, institutional, and national security. It also impacts the balance sheet through intellectual property, personally identifiable information, and brand risk. It unquestionably poses a major concern due to the exposure, cost and subsequent risk to exploitation of valuable information that can range from personal to even national security concerns.


What can a Strategic Intelligence professional do to mitigate these very real concerns around data integrity and company privacy? It can be overwhelming to say the least. Many make the argument that there is a fine line between what is legally permissible to acquire versus what is ethically and morally acceptable behavior around acquisition and usage.

It is important to note that as intelligence professionals, we each have a responsibility to continuously improve our practices and set examples for ethical behavior. We, and the greater strategic and data intelligence community must reflect the appropriate tone to start establishing universal practices, applicable to all countries and industries, that ensure a proper, legal and universally acceptable way to exercise competitive and market data intelligence acquisition and utilization.

Let’s start with what might be viewed as inappropriate examples of intelligence gathering and usage. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but provides some of the more commonly associated forms of intelligence data not appropriate for competitive and marketplace usage (unless publicly provided by company). Examples of information types that Strategic Intelligence professionals should never use (unless they’re already provided publicly by the company) include:
  • Proprietary, internal-only R&D plans of a competitor
  • Competitor strategy details from internal documentation
  • Competitor pricing and discount terms
  • Competitor Sales volume or territorial designation and performance
  • Competitor documentation labeled “Company confidential”, “Company Private”, etc
  • New Product Development details or specifics of a competitor
As a general rule, and in accordance with the SCIP Code of Ethics, you should never use information that was obtained through improper methods that would otherwise be confidential. Overall, good corporate governance practices around information acquisition and utilization should focus on the following:
  • Not requesting, accepting, using or sharing confidential data or intelligence about a competitor, customer, supplier, or other entity
  • Not requesting confidential information about a competitor from competitors, customers, partner or other 3rd parties
  • Not utilizing algorithms or other tools to circumvent safeguards in place to obtain non-publicly available information
  • Not utilizing individuals with “inside information” that will provide details on classified company content, whether openly or in return for restitution
  • Not utilizing confidential competitive information that is found, or left behind, or in any way unintentionally disclosed
  • Not using information that is anonymous or based on unidentified sources
How should Competitive Intelligence be obtained? Below bullets are an attempt to provide some “standardized” behaviors that should act as a foundational basis for data acquisition and usage:
  • Publicly available information, via web, published documentation, interviews, forums, events, advertising, analyst firms, etc.
  • Information from credible 3rd party firms that follow published ethical guidelines
  • Information from 3rd parties that adhere to same standards as your company standards or greater
  • Information from credible 3rd parties that adhere to the SCIP Code of Ethics
  • Information disclosed in accordance with confidentiality obligations (from company alliances or partners
  • Knowledge of customer needs gained through prior transactions
  • Nest Practices or Benchmarking sharing of information with competitors on an open basis
  • Nurture internal company sources (field, sales, etc.) that have direct interaction with customers that can provide loyalty, sentiment, and related attributes associated with your products and services as compared to your competitor’s
  • Forums, Trade Shows, Events – excellent locations to understand competitive positioning, product development and roadmaps, as well as feature sets to determine competitive pressure points and areas of focus for company priorities
Next, let’s look at these by category.

SOCIAL MEDIA -  With the proliferation of social media, intelligence can now be readily acquired via dozens of different social media platforms. While new, the guidelines and behaviors surrounding the legal and ethical guidelines in collection and usage exactly still apply to social media context. While the “media” may have changed, the ethical rules and guidance have not. Key principles include:
  • Not misrepresenting yourself or saying anything that is not true on social media. Do not impersonate or pretend you are someone whom you are not
  • Not making any statements or misrepresentations that might intend to deceive or cause someone to communicate or share information that would otherwise be kept confidential
  • Not using competitor internal presentation / materials that were not intended to be shared outside of the company but was inadvertently posted
  • Not violating any Social Media platform terms and conditions of service
  • It is acceptable to acquire publicly available information that is posted via public filings of competitor companies, court and patent filings, or any other publicly posted content from competitors
  • PowerPoint presentations or content related to earnings, analyst presentations, press releases, new product launches, etc. that is again available from competitive websites or publicly posted by competitor.

PRODUCT INFORMATION -   Acquiring information about a competitor’s products can contribute greatly to your understanding of how the company positions their portfolio. A key way to acquire such information is through the use of “mystery shopping”, a legal practice in which individuals pose as customers to gather non-confidential information about products and services being offered by a competitor. Some examples might include purchasing products to compare support levels, making inquiries with 3rd parties to examine the selling characteristics of their products versus a competitor, researching pricing, or reverse engineering product configurations. Key principles include:
  • Again, not stating anything that is not true nor impersonating yourself as someone else. You should also not pretend to purchase a product you did not
  • Not stating anything that is intended to deceive or cause someone to communicate or share information that would otherwise be kept confidential
  • Not using a 3rd party to obtain proprietary or confidential information

FORMER EMPLOYEES -  Former employees of competitor companies often possess confidential information, and issues may arise as to whether that confidential information can be shared now that the former employee: (1) is no longer working for the competitor; and (2) may now be working for your company. Former employees may have contractual confidentiality obligations (non-disclosure / non-compete agreements) to their former employer, which can present several challenges to how data is shared and in what capacity.
Remember that a newly hired individual should be brought into employment because of their general knowledge of the industry, tends and best practices, NOT because of their possession of confidential competitor information. Under no circumstances should individuals divulge information that may be confidential to their former employer. Key principles include:
  • Respect an individual’s obligation to protect the confidential information of both their current and former employers. Never induce anyone to violate any obligation of confidentiality.
  • Do not ask anyone, including job applicants, current and former employees of competitors, partners or suppliers, to divulge competitive confidential information. For example, you may not ask a former employee of a competitor to disclose confidential information.
  • New employees may bring their knowledge of the industry and the know-how they have about how best to practice their profession or engage in a particular business.

PRIMARY RESEARCH -  Engaging 3rd party vendors to conduct competitive intelligence is a common practice for many companies, especially when availability of necessary information is not present from public domain resources. To this end, competitive information should always be obtained in an ethical and lawful matter when dealing with 3rd party research firms. They should have their readily available criteria and state principles on how to extract intelligence from their research community that complies with industry standards. Their practices should align with your company’s standards of business conduct. Key principles include:
  • Consultants and vendors should follow the same information gathering principles and policy as the company that hires them, but they don’t need to disclose they are working on behalf of that company. However, they cannot misrepresent themselves or the intent of their information collection.
  • Consultants and vendors should never be asked or permitted to do something that is suggestive of deception or fraud.
  • Consultants and vendors should be able to identify and document sources used for competitive intelligence gathering.
  • 3rd party organizations should be subject to audits by the hiring company as a means to ensure necessary compliance to your company’s standards and industry guidelines.


Distilling all of these behaviors and requirements down into a few easy-to-remember guidelines will help internalize and make practitioners better analysts:
  1. Headline Test How would your action and behavior look if it was a news headline in the local paper? Is it something you would be proud of or worried about?
  2. Triangulate your data, whenever possible  Relying on one source for an outrageous claim is not only a risky business proposition, but can have legal ramifications in itself. Use multiple reliable sources to gather the information and determine if there is sufficient content that reinforces a particular claim or result.
  3. Lastly, don’t lie, cheat or steal data – it’s as simple as that. Obtain content from public sources and use reliable 3rd party companies to provide those additional layers of data that may otherwise be unavailable from public domain. Or better yet, employ tools to automatically aggregate content from the many public (and paid) sources out there to effectively build up a picture that can be safely and effectively utilized to move your company’s strategy in the right direction.  
Today more than ever, it is of utmost urgency to harness the effectiveness of data analytics and to incorporate intelligence and insights into your corporate strategy plans. This is a fundamental requirement not only to effectively compete, but should be viewed as a minimum requirement in remaining competitive in the marketplace we currently reside in. The way data is gathered and utilized should be ethical, professional, and principled, and should follow corporate and industry standards in ensuring that not only are you operating in a professional manner, but you are minimizing / eliminating any sort of risk and exposure (both reputational and legally) for you and your company.

Competitive Intelligence Magazine
CIM is the premier voice of the Strategic, Market, and Competitive Intelligence community, published continuously since 1998. By curating original, high quality content featuring progressive ideas and best practices, we empower intelligence-driven growth and strategic decisions. Members can click above to browse the full archive. 

This article was originally published in January 2020 (CIM Volume 25, Issue 1).  



“The way data is gathered and utilized should be ethical, professional, and principled. As intelligence professionals, we each have a responsibility to continuously improve our practices and set examples for ethical behavior.”
Paul Santilli
Chair - SCIP Member Advisory Board
Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Author - Paul Santilli
Paul Santilli is a 24 year veteran of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and currently leads the HPE Worldwide (WW) Industry Intelligence & Strategy Organization for the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Solutions Business. He is a recognized thought leader in Data Analytics Modeling around Industry Intelligence, Insights and Strategy, and chairs HPE OEM Executive Customer Councils and Industry Advisory Boards globally.

Paul also serves as Chairman of the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) Board of Directors Executive Committee and is active in several advisory roles to industry conferences and forums. Paul presents worldwide on Intelligence, Innovation, and Strategy in keynote and executive audiences, and has published numerous papers in industry and academic journals related to Intelligence Modeling, Innovation, Disruption, and Strategy.

Prior to HPE, Paul contributed 10 years at Apple Computer in various leadership roles around Quality, Operations and Product Development. Paul has a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Master’s degree in Engineering and Business from Stanford University.

SCIP Code of Ethics
Professionalism - To continually strive to increase the recognition and respect of the profession

Compliance - To comply with all applicable laws, domestic and international

Transparency - To accurately disclose all relevant information, including one's identity and organization, prior to all interviews

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Honesty - To provide honest and realistic recommendations and conclusions in the execution of one's duties

Evangelism - To promote this Code of Ethics within one's company, with third-party contractors and within the entire profession

Alignment - To faithfully adhere to and abide by one's company policies, objectives and guidelines

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