The Ethics of Big Data: temptation and fear | Analytics |Big Data

The Ethics of Big Data: temptation and fear

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Big Data philosophy

Ethics is a discipline in philosophy primarily concerned with discerning what forms of human behaviour are acceptable and those that are not. More generally, ethics (or moral philosophy) is a sub-section of philosophy that deals with recording, defending and supporting the concept of good and bad conduct.

The practice of ethics

Generally speaking, this implies that ethics deal with questions such as:

  • How people can best live together in society?
  • Given certain circumstances, what actions are right or wrong?

The answers to these questions ultimately define what is considered right and wrong, normal and perverse, as well as what is criminal, admirable and an entitlement. A major problem in ethics is that when answering ethical questions, the social and cultural background plays an important role. In a world of increasing globalisation, this aspect will play a more significant role. This is not only a challenge for ethics as a science but for everyone who has to deal with ethics, from government leaders and legislators, right down to an individual who has to make decisions at work.

Applying ethics to Big Data

In addition to mainstream of (common) ethics, there is also applied ethics, which operates within a more limited area (scope), such as medical interventions, but business practices, and ICT applications as well. The latter direction, the ethics of ICT and the use of Big Data in particular, is explored in this blog. It also briefly addresses the personal protection issues surrounding the use of Big Data. This blog discusses the various methods that have been proposed to resolve the issue, in which their advantages and drawbacks are also discussed. Finally this blog reflects on the difficult relationship between ethics and ICT applications as well as on ways to improve this relationship and counteract the misuse of computers (and data).

Big Data is seductive

Big Data systems which capture new information at an incredibly rapid pace, have virtually unprecedented and limitless possibilities. The combinations of the application of machine learning, artificial intelligence and Big Data in particular provide unprecedented opportunities to predict people’s lives. Like everything else in life Big Data has a seductive side and a worrying side.

I want to know everything about the client

The temptation lies in the promise that information tells you everything about people and issues. A company prefers to know everything about its clients. The more they know about their client’s behaviour and way of thinking, the more a company can customise its products. The logical consequence of this is that a company that continuously leads the way in gaining a customer’s favour then has a better chance of outperforming its competitors.

A bottomless pit

The fear is the spectre that if no investment is made in Big Data clients will slowly forget about the company. But there is also the fear that investing in Big Data is equivalent to throwing money into a bottomless pit. How many companies are there who build a data lake only because they do not want to be a laggard?

Customers actually don’t like it

At the other end of the spectrum customers feel uncomfortable with the fact that companies can just gain access to their personal data. It’s not surprising that the demands for the protection of our privacy have become louder and more frequent in recent years. At the same time customers want to use personal deals and discounts on the products they use and purchase regularly.

The infiltration of Big Data in our lives

Whether we like it or not Big Data slowly infiltrates our lives. Using Big Data means that (parts of) our personal data, feelings and ideas become accessible to others. Anyone who doesn’t want this has to remove himselve from society and the world. This indicates that we should be discussing the potential of Big Data and the morally correct ways in which it should be used.

Here to stay

Big Data is here to stay and will only expand. We will have to get used to the fact that everyone, or actually no one in particular, can obtain information about us. People who we don’t even know and whom we ourselves would probably say nothing about ourselves to, even non-natural people (companies), can dig into our private lives. The discussion should therefore not be about whether we want to use Big Data, but rather how we should cope with the excesses Big Data potentially entails. In other words, what are the ethics of Big Data?

Ethical accountability when dealing with Big Data

Ethically accountable solutions are often difficult to find but they are essential in this domain if we don’t want it to change into a Brave New World (the famous novel written by Aldous Huxley about a totalitarian society). The question is therefore: where can these ethically accountable solutions be found?

No ethics can be expected from technology

We don’t expect ethics to come from Big Data and its technology. Information possesses no ethics and has no ethical behaviour, which is also true of all the technology used to search Big Data. However once a technology is used, there is therefore a person who has made a decision about it, and someone else who carries out that decision. In both cases this is done by people, and people have ethics and are capable of acting ethically.

However, in many cases people frequently rely on the fact that their company, actually a non-natural person, instructs them to perform certain activities. Nevertheless this never gives a person an excuse to hide behind a façade of corporate politics, because stealing on instructions is still theft.

However the solution can be found by reversing the reasoning around ethics and Big Data. It is often assumed that Big Data is used to exploit the individual. Another approach would be that Big Data is used to teach individuals something about themselves.

Big Data makes our sub-conscious visible

By evaluating our browsing or purchasing behaviour and making all sorts of correlations from this behaviour, Big Data renders our sub-conscious visible. We are seldom aware of these correlations ourselves. Knowledge of these sub-conscious desires is an extremely effective component for advertising purposes. The more unconscious the behaviour we exhibit is, the easier we are to influence. Therefore, the moral question we have to ask is:

Are we allowed to influence the sub-conscious in such a way that we influence customers to do what we want?

Many companies would answer this question in the affirmative but for personal reasons many customers would answer with a no. It’s a remarkable fact that the people in these companies feel they can do things to the customer that they certainly don’t want another person to do to them.

The key question these people should ask is whether people, or their clients, actually like being influenced sub-consciously. Wouldn’t they find it more pleasant to consciously choose a particular product? If the answer to the last question is yes, then how do you help the customer come to the same conscious choice regarding Big Data?

Correlations between apparently isolated events

Big Data can provide insight into many different types of correlation between apparently isolated events. By evaluating these isolated events, finding the correlations between them, and then working with the customer on the reasons behind the correlations could well be the real power of Big Data. By working with the customer to find their true desires, the customer can make a conscious decision regarding the next step. The customer is therefore better supported, which means much more than unravelling the customer’s sub-conscious desires. The question that comes to mind is, how can every customer (or a person, citizen, individual) be educated so this approach would work.

Plato and legislation

Ethics and the use of computers remains the work of people, just as ethics themselves come from people’s work. Unfortunately people need rules for this. Like Plato, one of the greatest philosophers of Western philosophy, who once said:

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.

This means that ethical conduct always depends on the people and circumstances involved.

The 10 commandments of computer ethics

To provide people with support, many different organisations who are involved in using computers have drawn up codes of ethical conduct. Many of these codes can be traced in some way to a dozen simple (some say too simple) rules of computer ethics, the ten commandments of computer ethics:

  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm others.
  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people’s computer work.
  3. Thou shalt not go through other people’s files.
  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt respect the license terms for your software.
  7. Thou shalt not use other people’s computer resources without authorisation.
  8. Thou shall not use the fruits of other people’s labour as your own.
  9. Thou shalt take the social consequences of the code you created into account.
  10. Thou shalt use a computer with diligence and respect

Still relevant

Anyone who follows reports about hackers, viruses and malware may wonder whether these computer users actually know about and apply these commandments. Plato’s remarks, despite being in a statement that’s over 2,300 years old, are still applicable to these codes.

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