It's hard enough to figure out what big data means to your business and your customers. But what do your data-collection efforts mean to society?

That may seem like a lot to chew on. But a panel discussion at Dell Women Entrepreneurs Network in Austin last week urged entrepreneurs to consider five questions about big data that are all-too-often overlooked. 

1.     What is the edge case?

Some of the privacy issues around big data are easy to deal with, and "some things are out of bounds," said Matt Wolken, vice president and general manager of information management for Dell software. The toughest situations, he said, often arise when a new use for data may -- or may not-- cross the line (a.k.a., the edge case).

Target is the poster child for this one, said Wolken. In 2011, the retailer became more aggressive about using marketing materials, point-of-sale information, and its own registries to better understand when a customer might be pregnant. It then sent targeted marketing materials to those people--including a 15-year-old girl whose father stormed into Target accusing the store manager of defaming his family. Two weeks later, he was back in the store apologizing, having learned his daughter really was pregnant.

Wolken said that story ended relatively happily, but fellow panelist Nuala O'Connor, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that in another similar case, a pregnant girl was thrown out of her house by her parents. "In any edge-use case," said Wolken, "you should have a review board that helps you understand this." For smaller companies, he said, "If it's your own double-check, that’s fine." But you need to do something.

2.     2. Are you prepared for bad news?

Zeynep Young, founder and CEO of educational technology company Doubleline, warned that if you've never collected and analyzed substantial quantities of data before, doing so is more likely to uncover things that are wrong than things that are working well. "I've rarely seen people surprise themselves with how good things are, and they never noticed it," she said.

It’s important to give yourself the time and the mental space to digest the data "without jumping into the blame game first," she said. "The initial look usually uncovers some things that are not so great."

3.     3. What is a person's experience of self online?

In other words, how are you treated online, and how do you treat others? If you're condescended to online, you'll surely notice. And your customers will too. O'Connor offered this example: Her daughter is a first-grader at a Catholic school. When she opened up her e-reader for the first time, the entire screen was pink. The books that were recommended were all Barbie books.

O'Connor was aghast. "The Barbie books are not literature. They are marketing material," she said. Choosing Barbie books as reading material for her daughter, "is not diverse. It is narrowing her horizons. There was nothing that was making her curious." A friend’s reaction was similar to what many might suggest: Delete the app and move on.

For O'Connor, who previously served as the first chief privacy officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it's not that simple. "Data can be used to make decisions about you and to narrow your field of vision and what you see online," she said. “We want to see an Internet that is broadening, that is broadening our global reach. We want to be concerned and aware of the decisions that are being made in the digital world."

4.     4. What is the cost of sitting on the fence?

On one level, if you decide you're just not interested in big data or don’t have the bandwidth (literal or figurative) to handle it, that's fine, said Wolken. But your competitors may not be similarly lackadaisical. "What is the personalized experience your customer will offer?" asked Wolken. "Understand what data your competitors have to capture to offer a better experience," even if you decide not to act on that information immediately.

5.     5. What will you say when the government comes calling?

O'Connor reminded the audience that big data is just a lot of little data strung together. That data is about people, and can sometimes be embarrassing to them. She also noted that the lines are blurring between data held by the government and the private sector.

"Remember the person, and just say no," she said. "Just because the government comes knocking does not mean you have to say yes to requests for data. 'Come back with a warrant,' is one good response," she said. "They will come looking for you some day, so be prepared."