Data can be abused. The rights of individuals can be violated. Bits of disparate information can be tracked without a customer’s knowledge, and used to piece together identities or other profile information that a customer did not intend to divulge. Thanks to Big Data and other analytics, patterns can be tracked that would dismay customers or partners.

What is the responsibility of the software development team to make sure that a company does the right thing – both morally and legally? The straight-up answer from most developers, and most IT managers outside the executive suite, is probably, “That’s not our problem.” That is not a very good answer.

Corporations and other organizations have senior managers, such as owners, presidents, CEOs and board of directors. There is no doubt that those individuals have the power to say yes – and the power to say no.

Top bosses might consult with legal authorities, such as in-house counsel or outside experts. The ultimate responsibility for making the right decision rests with the ultimate decision-makers. I am not a lawyer, but I expect that in a lawsuit, any potential liability belongs with managers who misuse data. Programmers who coded an analytics solution would not be named or harmed.

This topic has been on my mind for some time, as I ponder both the ethics and the legalities implicit in large-scale data mining. Certainly this has been a major subject of discussion by pundits and elected officials, at least in the United States, when it comes to customer info and social-media posts being captured and utilized by marketers.

Some recent articles on this subject:

Era of Online Sharing Offers Benefits of ‘Big Data,’ Privacy Trade-Offs

The Challenge of Big Data for Data Protection

Big Data Is Opening Doors, but Maybe Too Many

What are we going to do in the face of questionable software development requirements? Whether we are data scientists, computer scientists or other IT professionals, it is quite unclear. A few developers might prefer to resign rather than write software they believe crosses a moral line. Frankly, I doubt that many would do so.

Some developers might say, “I didn’t understand the implications.” Or they might say, “If I don’t code this application, management will fire me and get someone else to do it.” Or they might even say, “I was just following orders.”