In recent time the importance of data analysis and data science has received much attention. I would even go as far as to suggest that data science is perhaps one of the most sought after careers in present day time. Sophisticated statistical analysis and big-data are skills that are sought after by many firms.
Hence, it is also the best of times to talk about data ethics. This is a very important subjects since our reliance on data is increased. The advent of AI requires that terra-bytes of data be fed to create the most advanced artificial intelligence. Furthermore, companies compete for data for purpose of marketing and preference satisfaction. Analysis of data is also important in making choices that utilize resources to their best.
But this focus on data has also bought about a darker side. Technology has always been plagued with hacking and hacking personal information and data that is now stored on many a websites has become almost a norm. Every-other week we see a data breach, be it the US Government, large retailers or Financial Institutions. The proper use of data and it’s application is a subject that needs to be studied further and assigned a priority.
The above mentioned article confirms the fact that the speed at which this technological advancement has occurred has left the consumer completely in the dark in regards to the consequences of their data being shared. Therefore, the article provides the traditional ethical framework which is used in ethical analysis and then examines both the framework and the ethical challenges of Big Data.
Ethical Challenges of Big Data:
Data is the effect of individual actions, sensory data, and other real world measurements creating a digital image of our reality.
Therefore data is collected in large quantities and from the start it creates a problem that the consumer is unaware of what kind of data is being collected and what it is being used for. Hence, this creates a ethical problem is regards to the consumers knowledge and free-will.
The advent of the “internet of things” further contributes to this disadvantage that the consumer faces by increasing the distance between the one actor’s knowledge ( eg: the consumer ) and the other actor’s source of information and power.
A power imbalance is then created between the consumer and the corporate agencies with the necessary know-how to generate the intelligence and knowledge from information.
One would say that there is a distributive injustice involved over here, with the distribution of the benefit mainly falling towards the corporate agencies.
Furthermore, since the data-analysis is focused on correlations that in turn suggest causation, ” we are vulnerable to believing what we see without knowing the underlying why.”
The other major problem that arises is that since as consumers are lives are being recorded to create the data reality, our actions become more and “accessible” or “transparent” to an entity who is skilled in data manipulation.
There are already softwares developed to access the free-data that is available, on social-networks to profile a person. Hence, the consumer is at a complete disadvantage as there occurs a power imbalance between the consumer and the agency that has collected and manipulated the data.
Even harmless or fun activities such as messaging, picture sharing, playing online games are subject to exploitation.
The control and accessiblity of data provides the data manipulator insights into the consumer preferences. Even though ‘anonymization’ of data is encouraged, it is not always possible to do so since then the data is stripped of the information that gives it it’s special meaning and content.
Since, the information that is gathered is used to determine preferences of both individuals and groups, this information can be used to target groups of people and consumers to behave in a certain way. This is a major ethical issue because targeted marketing as we have seen lately, in the case of Cambridge Analytica and the recent election can be used for purposes that can have ever-lasting consequences.
The article mentions in detail especially giving focus to party politics and how twitter bots and such are used to target audiences and create grass-root campaigns. The article also focuses on the electoral decision between Coakley and Brown in which bots were used in campaign and caused a swing decision.
The author of the article provides a classic example of the movie “Minority Report” in which policing is conducted and people arrested because of predictions based on data and profiling. This is a reality towards which we are moving to. Although since we are aware of how data use and prediction can be used in such a way it maybe said that such policing efforts may not get out of hand. Although I do-not want to put that much faith into that statement. It may also be said that these kinds of predictive and data analysis may bring about social welfare where targeted individuals may receive social aid and benefits according to their circumstances. Although even this action of bringing about social welfare raises ethical concerns. It raises ethical concerns regarding the “intervention threshold” and that if this help or aid should just be based on the algorithmic calculations of certain variables.
Research Ethics and Consent:
Even though there exist codes and conduct for research, according to the author and even by my own personal observations this area is lagging behind. It maybe perhaps that importance is not given to ethical studies as it prevents reckless profiteering by large corporations. But what ever the case, much work needs to be done in this area. It is very easy for a researcher to glean information from social media without informed consent. Even though the data is already public no one considers the fact that their profile maybe used for research purposes and when it does happen there is no consent involved and this constitutes to a breach of research ethics.
(additional thoughts forthcoming)