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The ethics of Big Data

by Angela Daly
19 October 2014
The hi-tech rise of Big Data has generated both hype and trepidation. Angela Daly considers the ethics of this increasing capacity to track our online lives.
Big Data is one of the current much-hyped and much-talked about technology trends, along with the Internet of Things, wearable devices and 3D printing. But what precisely is ‘big data’? Different people use the term in different ways, but it can mean any collection of very large and complex datasets that would be difficult to process and analyse using traditional methods. It is also increasingly applied to just any, very large amount of data which might be controlled by the State, for instance via Centrelink, e-health services and tax, or by large information corporations such as Google and Apple, or ‘old’ industries such as banks and supermarkets. Even politicians are excited, with European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes urging governments to ‘embrace big data’.
There are some obvious positive aspects to Big Data. Particular analyses, not possible due to technical limitations and restrictions of scope and scale can now be performed, revealing certain new information about ourselves and the world we live in. Indeed, it can reveal new information beyond our world and ourselves. My colleagues in the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing would not be able to do their job without the accumulation of Big Data about our universe. Aside from some issues about ownership and intellectual property, this kind of Big Data gathering does not pose too many ethical questions. However, when Big Data gets personal, collecting and analysing information about human beings or data made by them, is when the problems start.
A good (or bad) example is the recent Facebook ‘emotional contagion’ study that involved an in-house Facebook researcher and some academics from Cornell University in the US. During one week in January 2012, over 600,000 Facebook users unwittingly had their News Feeds manipulated to include either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ stories. The aim was to determine whether their exposure lead to similar expressions. The lack of informed consent from the participants proved highly controversial and data protection authorities in the UK and Ireland are investigating the extent to which the study complies with EU data protection law. A complaint has also been made to the US Federal Trade Commission that this research may have been conducted illegally.
Big Data involving accumulations of personal information, or ‘profiling’, can also build very detailed and intrusive pictures about individuals.
The Facebook experiment highlights one of the ‘dark sides’ of Big Data: the use of people’s information without their consent or control. While it will be interesting to see the results of any investigation into the legality of what Facebook did, it is nevertheless true that the privacy laws in place are not particularly strong. They are not well-adapted for changes in technology and the proliferation of data, and they are not always well-enforced. The fact that data may be stored in the ‘cloud’ (a location that is not the equipment of the person giving or receiving the data) or a location somewhere ‘out there’, is also problematic. Foreign laws might be governing the data or foreign law enforcement agencies might be able to access the data and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that it is being stored securely. Although this applies to any data stored in the cloud, the ‘bigness’ of the data intensifies the issue.
Big Data involving accumulations of personal information, or ‘profiling’, can also build very detailed and intrusive pictures about individuals. Indeed, the information does not necessarily have to be ‘personal’ to be revealing. A study by a Stanford graduate on telephone ‘metadata’ (such as the phone numbers the user called and the numbers of received calls) showed that this information could reveal a person’s political and religious affiliation, among other intimate details about their life. This is a significant finding for Australians, given the government’s current plans to introduce the mandatory retention of all communications metadata.
Further ethical questions arise regarding the uses of Big Data and the conclusions drawn from it. Kate Crawford has warned of ‘data fundamentalism’ – ‘the notion that correlation always indicates causation, and that massive data sets and predictive analytics always reflect objective truth’. Given that there is an element of human design behind the gathering and processing of the data, there can accordingly be hidden biases in it. Big Data might be best used alongside traditional qualitative methods rather than in place of them. However, if techno-dystopian Evgeny Morozov is to be believed, then we are moving towards the opposite situation in practice. ‘Smart’ devices and Big Data are aiding policy interventions in the US, making initial steps towards ‘algorithmic regulation’ by which social objectives are achieved through data and technology. Aside from the problems of bias in the data, and it not presenting a complete picture of reality, in practice ‘algorithmic regulation’ is unlikely to address the causes of social problems. It will instead deal with their effects and inequalities are likely to persist.
As ever with new technologies, Big Data is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral. Design, implementation and use will determine whether it is ethical. We must also acknowledge its limitations and exercise caution when using the data to generalise the state of the world. Whilst Big Data seems to be a useful tool for research, it’s worth cutting through the hype to realise it is not the only one, and the old ways can still be good ways.

Angela Daly is a member of Electronic Frontiers Australia’s Policy and Research Standing Committee and the Australian Privacy Foundation’s Board of Directors. She is also a Research Fellow in media and communications law at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.