Over the last year, we’ve been taking a deep dive into studying the ethical implications of digital footprints for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). We’ve used a ‘netnography’ approach to engage with a wide audience on LinkedIn and Tweeter to understand people’s lived online experience from many perspectives.
The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of our working lives and organisations, and we now take constant online engagement as completely natural. But wherever we go online, whether as customers, employees or employers, we leave a trail of data: our digital footprint. What’s more, these footprints have commercial value. This raises challenging issues, such as data privacy, data security, surveillance, GDPR and web tracing. For example, who owns the data in digital footprints? Do employees know how to protect customers’ data? And how are SMEs handling the ethical side?
As one study participant confessed, ‘I tend to think of [my digital footprint as something negative that may come back and bite me.’ We need clear boundaries between professional and personal activities online – but if organisations are going to monitor employees’ personal activities, can the two ever be truly separate? Even though SMEs only have limited resources, they have just as much responsibility for data handling and processing as the biggest organisations. Their major challenges are financial constraints, a gap between their knowledge and the technology, a shortage of digital skills and a lack of policies and procedures.
While technology is moving fast, public knowledge is standing still. So policymakers must find a way to bridge this knowledge–technology gap through education and training. SMEs urgently need to create new roles and responsibilities for managing data internally, to promote transparency and accountability. As one study participant put it, ‘What we need is a culture of truth (check that what you see online is really what it seems) and a culture of accountability and responsibility (do your part in keeping the online world true).’
Privacy is crucial. As one perceptive study participant noted, ‘Footprints allow other people to know not just where you've been, but also where you're heading (yes, the power of AI and data analytics).’ Several others explained how they kept work and personal profiles separate on social media to safeguard their own privacy. ‘Although I am conscious of privacy… my personal data is still being collected all the time,’ one reflected. ‘I do wonder how businesses manage this data.’ Taking a wider view, our participants appreciated just how broad the implications of digital footprints could be. ‘Data security is one of the hot topics in our digital world,’ said one. ‘The US experienced how important digital footprints are during the 2016 Presidential Election… how election propaganda can be customised and manipulated. That may have affected not only the US, but the entire world.’
The issue is global – but the solution starts at the local level. And that’s why SMEs need education, training, support, resources and a regulatory framework to help them manage digital data in an efficient and ethical way.