Every day, online shoppers and web users are handing over private information that they do not want to disclose to the general public.
Our customers give details about their location, date of birth, health conditions as well as their financial records and details.
Digital technology has enabled us to communicate information, make decisions and purchases, and create connections between ourselves and business fast.
It has also exposed both business and customer to a serious vulnerability. The convenience of a digital life comes at a cost, and that cost is your privacy.
As a small business, can your customers trust you to manage their private information with integrity?
With each advance in digital technology, we are forced to consider our ethical standards and the ethical implications of doing business with people online.
Our use of technology leaves a footprint. Whether it is a smartphone, tablet, a mobile device or a Fitbit. Wherever we go, we are leaving a trail of information for business to gather and assess - and perhaps even use without our knowledge.
Australian Software Development Service, CIBIS asks, “What if your Fitbit data determined your private health insurance premium? What about storing patient phone numbers in your smartphone and Facebook starts to recommend them to your friends based on geolocation?”
How do you feel about making a flight reservation online only to be declined because the airline has profiled your personal data from other sources (accurate or not) and you have not met the requirements of their algorithmic assessment?
This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In fact, in many ways, this world of automated and algorithmic assessment is already with us. The question is, are we being told about it? What recourse do consumers have if the information on them is inaccurate, misleading or downright false?
Should a small business be required to disclose the information they have about consumers to those consumers?
On the one hand, this information enables a business to better serve its customers. But where is the line between personal service, ethics, and privacy?
The same is said of consumer trust. When people visit your site, they are looking and evaluating trust symbols. As Dan Steiner of Elite Legal Marketing points out for those in the legal profession, "Your website is your business card [it needs to] offer a professional and welcoming atmosphere that provides valuable and actionable information."
Your website is your business card. It ought to engender trust. But building that trust with prospective clients is not always easy.
Many people will recall, back in 2014, the scandal created by Facebook over its apparent attempts to manipulate its users with information it had gathered from user feeds.
Without the knowledge of it to users, it was alleged that Facebook interfered with the daily feeds of over 600,000 site members, presenting each user with a variety of either positive or negative posts.
The purpose of the experiment was to determine whether Facebook could manipulate the emotional state of its users via carefully chosen feed content.
This attempt by Facebook to secretly manipulate and alter the emotional state of its users drew widespread criticism.
In 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed an incident involving the University of Melbourne which had been secretly tracking its students' activity on campus via the student's own smartphone technology.
Similarly, at the University of Sydney, students' online activity is matched with their demographic background to predict who might drop out.
It's called "learning analytics," and universities say it is the key to improving retention rates and student experience.
But, apart from the total invasion of privacy involved, who is to say that the data is accurate or that the automated algorithm is making an accurate assessment?
According to the logic of the University, an indigenous kid from a single parent household in Wangaratta (demographic) who enjoys watching reruns of Gilligan's Island on his iPad, may miss out on entry to a University.
Not because he does not have the intelligence, commitment or aspiration, but because some algorithm, quietly working away in the Dean's office, has determined the prospective student to be "unsuitable."
It is not enough for small business, or any academic institution, to simply promise to use our information correctly.
It seems that in Australia, and elsewhere, the lines between ethical business and unethical business are becoming blurred.
Perhaps, for some small business, this will not impact their longevity or brand reputation. But for many companies, one ethical slip can ruin the entire reputation and profitability of that business online.
The challenge faced by small business is to be able to demonstrate to their consumers that they are trustworthy - and worthy of your trade.
The challenge ahead for consumers is to determine whether your small business can be trusted with their details.
The issue of customer and consumer ethics goes beyond the claims that a company makes about its products or services. We are now in an era where businesses may be gathering an enormous amount of data on consumers without consumer knowledge.
Unfortunately, trying to regulate such activity is difficult in a digital world with ever-increasing in complexity.
About David Trounce
David is a small business consultant based in Australia. David has worked in small business tourism and retail and also writes for Business.com, GrowMap and Born2Invest.