The need for big data ethics

Proponents of big data boast of the huge benefits that analyzing large data sets can bring to organizations. There’s no shortage in the hype about how insights gleaned from information can solve problems both of business and society.

However, the “Utopian rhetoric” around big data is often exaggerated to the detriment of a gaining a clearer understanding of some of the risks that accompany it, according to two experts.

In recent article in the Stanford Law Review, Neil Richards, professor of law at the Washington University and Jonathan King, vice president, cloud strategy and business development at cloud computing firm Savvis Inc., called for the development of what they called “big data ethics.”

They described big data ethics as “a social understanding of the times and contexts when big data analytics are appropriate, and of the times and contexts when they are not.”

Richards and King, liked the current path that big data is on now to that of the concept of the “independence of Cyberspace” when it was articulated about a decade ago Internet evangelist John Perry Barlow. In his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” Barlow spoke of the Internet as a “new home of the mind, in which governments would have no jurisdiction.”

Ten years later, with the continued reports of various government states clamping down on Internet use by their citizens and revelations of online surveillance activities by intelligence agencies such as the Communications Security Establishment of Canada and the United States’ National Security Agency, we now know that this was a very optimistic forecast.

While Barlow was “mostly right” about the Internet changing pretty much everything, Richards and King the Internet’s Utopian ideal had to “yield to human reality” especially in the face of problems such as identity theft, spam and cyber bullying.

“Regulations of the Internet’s excesses was (and is) necessary in order to gain the benefits of its substantial breakthrough,” they wrote.

They also see the need for a similar approach to big data.

“…we must recognize not just big data’s potential, but also some of the dangers that powerful big data analytics will unleash upon society,” they said.

King and Richards focused on three paradoxes of the discussion around big data which they believe should be examined carefully to gain a better understanding of the big data picture.

The Transparency Paradox of big data centres on the fact that while big data “pervasively” collects all kinds of private information, the “operations of big data itself are almost entirely shrouded in legal and commercial secrecy.”

Consider this. Cisco Systems Inc. forecasts that no less than 37 billion intelligent devices will be hooked up to the Internet by 2020 as the world moves to the Internet of Everything. Sensors and applications will be gathering data that will be stored in highly secured data centres.

“Big data promises to use this data to make the world more transparent, but its collection is invisible, and its tools and techniques are opaque, shrouded by layers of physical, legal and technical privacy by design,” according to Richards and King. “If big data spells the end of privacy, then why is the big data revolution occurring mostly in secret.”

Richards and King also discuss how big data seeks to identify but threatens identity in the process. They call this the Identity Paradox.

Big data is heralded as a tool that enables users to gain a “sharper and clearer picture of the world,” however big data sensors and big data pools are in the hands of “powerful intermediary institutions, not ordinary people.

Speaking about big data’s Power Paradox, Richards and King cited how Syrian authorities appear to have learned a lesson from the early Arad Spring uprisings and had pretended to remove restrictions on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in order to secretly profile, track and arrest anti-government protesters.

Read more about big data’s three paradoxes here


Nestor E. Arellano
Nestor E. Arellano
Toronto-based journalist specializing in technology and business news. Blogs and tweets on the latest tech trends and gadgets.

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