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Shifting lines: data security enters ethical investing debate

Data security

Facebook’s messy data scandal has brought investor concerns about data integrity and cyber security into focus, the Responsible Investment Association Australasia has said. 

Speaking to Nest Egg sister site InvestorDaily, Responsible Investment Association Australasia (RIAA) chief executive Simon O’Connor said that exclusions and negative screenings tend to shift in line with societal expectations.

Mr O’Connors comments come as Facebook faces scrutiny for its role in a data breach that saw 50 million users' private details made available to UK firm Cambridge Analytica.

ETF provider BetaShares removed Facebook from its global sustainability leaders product last Friday.

Mr O’Connor said the issue of data and privacy breaches was not just a matter for ethical investors, but for “any investor in Facebook”, who should be scrutinising the comprehensiveness of Facebook’s response to the privacy breach.

“So a lot of investors will be looking now to see: what is Facebook doing to catch up on security measures, to catch up on its privacy management, and to ensure this doesn't happen again?” he said.

Data and privacy were among a suite of emerging ethical concerns and themes, such as the screening of sugar and guns as well as cyber security, Mr O’Connor said.

“Definitely what we've seen over the last two or three years is a really heightened focus from the whole responsible investment community around cyber security, data breaches, these kinds of issues,” he said.

“We see them as a massive risk for any company with a huge customer base and we've seen breaches.

“It certainly has become a really elevated focus from the responsible investment community across all sectors that have exposure to big data, privacy customer issues.”

BetaShares chief executive Alex Vynokur told InvestorDaily his company's removal of Facebook from its ethical ETF portfolio was based on its Responsible Investment Committee’s (RIC) judgment that the breach was “very material” and creating a “real risk”.

Mr Vynokur added that Facebook had, by its own admission, said they had been aware of some of the issues as early as 2015, demonstrating the company made moves to address the problem only after it had reached public attention.

In these instances, he noted the “significant positive” of having committees such as the RIC in the ongoing governance and monitoring of the index tracked by the ETF, as well as for keeping track of what society deemed were ethical issues.

“When you leave it only to algorithms to do certain data screens, you will be missing the human oversight which clearly is so important in this particular area,” Mr Vynokur told InvestorDaily.

“Where it's particularly important as well is that over time, our perception of what’s ethical and what’s not changes.”

Thirty years ago, he pointed out that people would not have considered tobacco companies to be unethical, whereas today “any ethical investor would consider tobacco an ineligible area”.

“I would probably say in the case of data, and privacy of data, it's in that very similar sort of category of issues which we treat today as being extremely serious and extremely relevant,” Mr Vynokur said.

“But again, a decade or two ago, very few people would've imagined that to be of relevance.”

Shifting lines: data security enters ethical investing debate
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