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My company periodically collects prices of hundreds of items (grocery items and the like) from various outlets into a database for market research and other company-relevant business. This collection is done by 3-4 employees whose full-time job is to drive around all day to shopping outlets and supermarkets and record the prices. We don't get any data electronically from any outlet, everything is collected manually through "public" channels.

I have access to the production database through my job.

I'd like to use that data for a simple yet admittedly selfish purpose. I want to find the cheapest prices before I go shopping. I can easily find out when a supermarket has a special offer on Nutella, for example.

Is it professional/ethical to do this? On one hand, the prices themselves are definitely public and anyone can find them by walking into the outlets. On the other hand, the aggregate data takes a lot of effort to collect and is therefore valuable.

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    I'm not a lawyer, but as long as it's purely personal use, I can't see why there would be a problem. But if there is any doubt, just ask :) – Jane S Sep 9 '15 at 5:58
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    @JudeNiroshan If there is a chance that your boss would not be happy if you were caught doing it, then you shouldn't do it without getting permission first. Is it worth getting fired over? – Jane S Sep 9 '15 at 6:09
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    Here's another suggestion: it sounds like your idea would be useful to people other than you. That sounds like a potential product. Propose a new product for your company to develop. I'll tweak the idea for you a bit: take an entire shopping list and price it out by store showing the user how much they could save by going to one vs another. Add optimizations to group things: dry goods at store A, fresh/frozen at B (I'm not going to 5 stores to save $3 and I don't want my frozen stuff to thaw out to save a few dollars). Collect in the app & the users are getting the data for you. – Colin Young Sep 9 '15 at 12:55
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    @ToddWilcox I think your analogy is not at all comparable to this case. Driving around one of Ford's cars reduces the car's value immediately and is a serious risk of damaging it causing a major reduction in value. Querying a database does not subtract any value. – Daniel Sep 9 '15 at 17:45
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    You can. You shouldn't. I totally would. – Anubian Noob Sep 9 '15 at 19:57
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I'd like to use that data for a simple yet admittedly selfish purpose. I want to find the cheapest prices before I go shopping.

Is it professional/ethical to do this? On one hand, the prices themselves are definitely public and anyone can find them by walking into the outlets. On the other hand, the aggregate data takes a lot of effort to collect and is therefore valuable.

In my opinion, it's neither professional nor ethical to use information gathered and paid for by the company for your personal use, unless you first have their permission.

Databases and their contents should be considered company property. Just because you are in a position technically to have access to the contents doesn't mean you are free to use it for non-company uses. And the nature of the contents and how the contents were acquired doesn't change that fact. You generally don't have permission to use company property unless it is granted to you.

If the company publishes the information on a publicly-available website, then that implies permission (at least for using the data through the website). On the other hand, if the company sells that information, then that implies that you don't have permission.

If the company tells employees (either in written or verbal form), that they can use the data, then you have permission.

Otherwise, the best way to know for sure is to ask for permission. Talk to your boss first, and if she/he doesn't know, you could ask who could give you permission.

Something like "Hey, boss. The prices in the XYZ database - they would be handy for personal use. Is that something the company would permit?" is a reasonable question. It's also possible that this simple question would result in an answer like "Sure. Many of the employees use it that way." But you will only know by asking.

If I were the manager, I wouldn't think less of someone for asking such a question, even if the answer were "No. That isn't permitted."

I'd think far less of someone who just decided to help themselves to the data without asking first. I'd wonder what else they were helping themselves to without permission.

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    Exactly this :) Be up front about it, don't make up cover stories, and you don't have to wonder if it's okay. You'll know if it's okay or not. – Jane S Sep 9 '15 at 10:46
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    +1 for the one answer that answers 99% of all Workplace.SE questions - Just ask. What are you afraid of?! – Kent A. Sep 9 '15 at 12:29
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    @KentAnderson: They are afraid the answer is "no" ;) – limdaepl Sep 9 '15 at 15:46
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    @el.pescado That's one of the biggest lies the world has ever believed. – Kent A. Sep 9 '15 at 19:21
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    @el.pescado It's true that it's easier to ask for forgiveness. But if neither would be given the consequences of seeking permission are much less. – Joel Sep 9 '15 at 23:37
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I would adopt a loose attitude here and say go ahead. All you're doing is using the data to do your shopping.

As long as you're not

a) Wasting company time (i.e. spending time you're supposed to be working compiling your shopping lists)

b) Doing anything that would harm the company or its reputation (e.g. giving the data to a competitor, making it publicly available, or using it for a competing business yourself)

c) accessing data which you are not supposed to be authorised to access

..then you're not really doing anything unethical. People use information they learned at work in their personal lives all the time. I wouldn't even bother asking your boss...

EDIT

Just to be absolutely clear, based on comments, I am speaking only about the case proposed by the OP, checking the publicly available prices of products in their local supermarket, and not saying it's OK to use your access to other data (e.g. HR personnel records, company accounting data or anything else that might be personal or confidential even if not explicitly specified as private)

  • @JoeStrazzere - It's obviously important whether the OP can be sure what the applicable access policy is (how access is officially managed and what additional rules apply), and also whether she is already getting work assignments that imply such authorization. – Jirka Hanika Sep 9 '15 at 11:58
  • @JoeStrazzere Most people know in their job what they are and aren't authorised to access. If the OP has been running queries on the data all the time as part of the work assigned to him/her then of course they are authorised. If they had to sneak into admin account and give themselves access, then they are not. – colmde Sep 9 '15 at 13:08
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    This is terrible advice. In some cases this is literally criminal, and in many cases it would constitute a fireable offense, to use data in an unauthorized manner. – Joe Sep 9 '15 at 14:39
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    To be clear I am referring specifically to the case of prices of products in a local supermarket, not general use of company data, and certainly not potentially confidential data like HR personnel records or accounting information. It's certainly way over sensitive to suggest that looking at the prices of products before buying them is criminal – colmde Sep 9 '15 at 15:11
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    @JoeStrazzere I never suggested it did (give them permission to use it personally), you asked how someone knew what they were authorised to access and I was answering that specific question. – colmde Sep 9 '15 at 15:14
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Generally speaking, access to your company’s data is probably limited. The company’s data, although gathered from public sources, is not public itself. It belongs to your company, and accessing it for anything but your work is illegal.

In your specific situation, why don’t you ask your boss whether he’d allow you to check the quality of production data, mostly on your own time? That way, you both benefit: your company gets confirmation that their data is factually correct, and you can buy cheap groceries. Accessing the data with your boss’s consent is perfectly fine.

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    To be honest, I asked here before asking my boss because I'm worried it's unprofessional and would reflect poorly to my boss. Spinning it into "checking the quality of production data" doesn't sound very convincing either. If I'm going to ask, I'm going to ask the real question. – imgx64 Sep 9 '15 at 6:53
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    @imgx64 I assume nvoigt meant for you to bring up the subject as a quid pro quo, not to disguise your intent: "I'd love to be able to use this data to save money on groceries and (in return) I'll report any instances where it turns out that the data is incorrect or out of date." – Lilienthal Sep 9 '15 at 8:53
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    "Accessing company data for anything but your work is illegal" - seems like an overly broad statement. – Brandin Sep 9 '15 at 10:26
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    @nvoigt Just a simple example. I used my company directory to look up a colleague's surname so I can send her an invite on LinkedIn. Or, if I work for Google, maybe I'll try out the latest development version of Google maps (not public yet) to plan a personal trip. I think it depends on the scope of "private gain" that you mean. If you're reselling the company's data, it's an obvious no. – Brandin Sep 9 '15 at 10:54
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    @nvoigt While there are topics of data that are protected by laws (e.g., Financial, medical, military), accessing this type of data (commercial pricing data) would not be illegal, as in against the law. Being "dragged to court" doesn't mean it was illegal. It just means someone feels harmed by the action and wants compensation. A judge may determine that laws were broken, but not always. – Kent A. Sep 9 '15 at 12:46
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If your company follows best practices regarding data security, then you should have signed a Data Use Agreement (DUA), Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA), or similar when you were granted permission to access the data (as part of your job). It most likely would involve taking an online 'course' in data security and/or privacy.

In that agreement, as well as the 'course', you would have been told what uses were permissible, as well as how to obtain permission for uses that are outside of the normal permissible uses. Most likely, severe consequences exist if you're caught using it for impermissible uses - even apparently harmless ones. In some cases that even includes possible jail time (though likely not in your case, but who knows).

As an example, I work for a not-for-profit which performs survey research for the government. We collect quite a bit of data, much of which is private. We're not permitted to use that data for any purpose outside of our normal work activities without permission. However, there is an explicit process we can follow if, for example, we wanted to use some of the data to publish a paper on our research. As it involves the government, of course they have to have sign-off, but it's a very standardized process and explicitly mentioned in our data use agreement. On the other hand, if I were to look at the dataset I'm working with and see if my grandmother was in it, I would be potentially facing jail time - just for looking.

If you don't have an agreement of any sort (NDA/DUA/etc.), then you should talk to your company's Information Security Officer (ISO), or if that doesn't exist, your manager. Never use information for any non-work purpose without doing so - even without an agreement. You could be breaking agreements your company has with other partners in doing so. For example, your company may have agreements with the grocery stores to allow it to collect that information; using it to get better deals on your groceries could potentially harm the stores and violate the agreements, causing the stores to issue a trespass order against your company's employees (while they're "public" places, they do have the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason other than discrimination against protected classes).

  • The "online course" thing will generally be more likely for large companies, but not so likely for smaller ones. – reirab Sep 9 '15 at 14:56
  • @reirab I don't know what your definition of 'large' is, but I've worked for companies with a few hundred employees who had them. There are relatively cheap off the shelf courses nowadays. – Joe Sep 9 '15 at 15:06
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Trivial example of why the answer can't be an unqualified "go ahead": the guys who were running a dating site until it was discovered that they were actively mining the data for girls whom they could invite on dates, whether their system thought it was a good match or not. Arguably legal, but most of their customers considered it unethical/creepy, and that news destroyed the service. The fact that data is public does not mean all uses of it are a good idea.

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    This may not be comparable. In the UK at least, data about people is specifically protected by law, whereas the OP's data is not about people. – James_pic Sep 10 '15 at 9:02
  • I can't see how buying cheap Nutella could be seen as creepy. – el.pescado Sep 10 '15 at 17:36
  • If you're just looking for cheap Nutella, you don't need the company's database to do that, and/or you should be able to ask them for permission to use it for that purpose. If you're asking us instead, I presume there's some reason to expect they would say no, and that reason is probably a good one. – keshlam Sep 10 '15 at 23:33
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I can imagine using your company data for this purpose is tempting, but there might actually be a better solution for this that doesn't involve using the hard work your company has put into this.

There are plenty of sites that already have done this kind of work and are willing to provide this information either for free or for a small monthly fee. Depending on where you live, it is entirely possible that you can access this information without relying on the work your company has done.

https://www.shopify.com/blog/7068398-10-best-comparison-shopping-engines-to-increase-ecommerce-sales has a list of 10 popular comparison shopping engines. Aside from that, many countries have a local version just for their specific country. I do not know what country you're from, but it's likely that you can already access such data freely through non-company mediums.


If you are unable to find sites like that, the comment from Colin Young about turning it into a company product might be of interest for you. Indeed, such a site can be of commercial value, because there are plenty of people out there that would love to be able to save on their shopping bills just by visiting other stores.

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