Big Data Ethics

Big Data Ethics
by Andrej Zwitter, University of Groningen – December 17, 2014

Big Data and associated phenomena, such as social media, have surpassed the capacity of the average consumer to judge the effects of his or her actions and their knock-on effects, as Facebook parties and the importance of social media for the Arab Spring vividly demonstrated. We are moving towards changes in how ethics has to be perceived: away from individual decisions with specific and knowable outcomes, towards actions by many, often unaware that they may have taken actions with unintended consequences for anyone. Responses will require a rethinking of ethical choices, the lack thereof and how this will guide scientists, governments, and corporate agencies in handling Big Data.

Big Data versus Traditional Ethics

Since the onset of modern ethics in the late 18th century, we took premises such as individual moral responsibility for granted. Today, however, it seems Big Data requires ethics to do some rethinking of its assumptions, particularly about individual moral agency. The novelty of Big Data poses some known ethical difficulties (such as for privacy), which are not per se new. In addition to its novelty, the very nature of Big Data has an underestimated impact on the individual’s ability to understand its potential, thus make informed decisions. Examples include among others, the “likes” on Facebook sold to marketing companies in order to more specifically target certain micro-markets; information generated out of Twitter feed based sentiment analyses for political manipulation of groups, etc.

In a hyper-connected era the concept of power, which is so crucial for ethics and moral responsibility, is changing into a more networked fashion. To retain the individual’s agency, i.e. knowledge and ability to act is one of the main challenges for the governance socio-technical epistemic systems. Big Data induced hyper-networked ethics exacerbate the effect of network knock-on effects. In other words, the nature of hyper-networked societies increases and randomizes the collateral damage caused by actions within this network and thereby the unintended consequences of people’s action.

New Challenges

As Global Warming is an effect of emissions of many individuals and companies, Big Data is the effect of individual actions, sensory data, and other real world measurements creating a digital image of our reality, i.e. “datafication”. Already, simply the absence of knowledge about which data is in fact collected or what it can be used for puts the “data generator” (e.g. online consumers, cellphone owning people, etc.) at an ethical disadvantage qua knowledge and free will. The “internet of things” and ambient intelligence online further contribute to the distance between one actor’s knowledge and will and the other actor’s source of information and power, as well as it strengthens the dependency on the delivery of services dependent on Big Data. Furthermore, the ownership over Big Data leads to a power imbalance between different stakeholders benefitting mostly corporate agencies and governments with the necessary knowhow and equipment to generate intelligence and knowledge from data.

In the sphere of education, children, adolescents, and grown ups still need to be educated about the unintended consequences of their digital footprints (beyond digital literacy). Social science research might have to consider this educational gap and draw its conclusions about the ethical implications of using anonymous, social Big Data, which nonetheless reveals much about groups. In the area of law and politics, political campaign observers, law enforcement, social services and lawyers will increasingly become data forensic investigators to utilize Big Data themselves and to recognize the illegal exploitation of the possibilities of Big Data.

A full open access version of the paper has been published in Big Data & Society.

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