Big data, privacy and ethics

To some big data, privacy and ethics are three silos that organizations deal with separately. But the fact is they are all tied together.

When the data includes personal information — or information that can be used to identify a person — then privacy and ethics automatically become involved.

However as Jonathan King, a vice-president at cloud provider CenturyLink Technologies, and lawyer Neil Richards point out in a column for O’, the knot doesn’t have to be constricting.

“The problem is that our ability to reveal patterns and new knowledge from previously unexamined troves of data is moving faster than our current legal and ethical guidelines can manage,” they write.

Think of why Facebook paid US$16 billion for WhatsApp, they say: The messaging service is attracting millions of people because it doesn’t have ads. What does have, however, is the metadata of the users. Facebook gains a mobile play, and lots of big data.

But what will it do with the information? The authors suggest that while it can be monetized, there’s an ethical obligation of organizations with such data to assure customers their data is treated confidentially and ethically.

“For big data to work in ethical terms,” they write, “the data owners (the people whose data we are handling) need to have a transparent view of how our data is being used – or sold.”

“If we fail to preserve the values we care about in our new digital society, then our big data capabilities risk abandoning these values for the sake of innovation and expediency.”

It’s not only about values, in my opinion. Treating big data carelessly risks the organization’s reputation. One that happens all that’s left is little data.

Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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