Corporate culture surrounding an organization’s unique ‘acceptable’ level of risk in decision making is a critical consideration in CI ethics.

Phil Britton of Ulta Beauty led a discussion on the perspectives and practices in digital intelligence to a captive audience during a breakout session during Tuesday’s RECONVERGE symposium.

A variety of questions offered, answered, and considered by Britton and attendees formed the basis for lively conversation.

Are competitive intelligence ethics rules different online? What’s permissible, and what isn’t? Where is the line drawn? What is outright misrepresentation?

Britton gave an example that digital online profiles on LinkedIn for some have become “vanilla” as practitioners look to gain information by constructing personal profiles that lack data concerning their identity—some may even have multiple LinkedIn profiles. Is this ethical?

Britton says no.

He gave many examples of practitioners in various industries—software, for example—in which hackers are prevalent. Is this OK? Rules may be different depending on the industry, customer data, product data, and a certain permissiveness may exist.

In retail, Britton will ask direct questions to the competition about practice and process: “Mystery Shopping” is ethical, appropriate and acceptable, even as he would not disclose his identity as competitor in initial conversation. Should he be asked as to his affiliation, Britton would disclose the information to the competition.

Information gathering methodologies may not be ethical (dumpster diving, for instance) but legal—it may come down to what level of risk a company is willing to accept, says one attendee.

Another participant indicated that if information discovered by such means would provide an embarrassment to the company, it should not be done—consider the “newspaper test,” how would a company detected as ‘dumpster diver’ react if this was company practice was made public? Enforceability of a policy at a big company can be very hard to do. Is the dollar value of information found worth the potential cost of a lawsuit? For some companies, the risk of discovery of proprietary information by suspicious methodologies are chances they may be willing to take.

Also, companies need to hold themselves accountable to the laws of the country in which they operate, as well as the country in which the organization is based.

A brief survey of the crowd: Who has rules written out about what is permissible and what is not in information discovery? Of attendees, some did, and some did not. Some companies have very explicit rules surrounding “mystery shopping,” for instance.

As a CI practitioner, you rely upon your competitor to guard their own information; should they not do so, is it appropriate for you to access and use this data? Consider Wikileaks as an example, notes Britton.

The inquiry sparked a thought-provoking exchange among attendees.

Competitors have gained large advantage by unethical means, noted one attendee. But is lying worth the gain? Is the pain of winning a contract (paying a fine, for instance) worth the risk? Most of the time, gaining competitive advantage does not require obtaining a trade secret—there are other means by which companies can make better decisions. Secrets are overvalued; insights are available elsewhere. People will overshare in the digital world, for instance, and open data sources are valuable repositories of information.

Data curation, then, becomes an important practice.

How comfortable is a team in decision making based on uncertainty with limited information? questioned one audience member. Gaining information by unethical means is ultimately not advantageous. Uncertainty is a component in the intelligence industry, and it must be acknowledged and appreciated within the context of conducting ethical business practice.

Consider these and other questions as important variables in your intelligence practice. How do these inquiries impact you?