Tech Context On The Ethics of Big Data | Straight Talk

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This article is by Featured Blogger Bob Gourley from his blog CTOvision. Republished with the author’s permission.

The term “Big Data” has been around quite a while (see a short history of Big Data here), but really came into mainstream discussion about a decade ago. The phrase had an important role in helping many of us think through new architectures for how to store and analyze data. Things were different from data storage and analysis of the past and the term helped us conceptualize some of that difference.

Part of what was different was the implications of privacy that many of us saw coming. Few were as prescient as Kord Davis, who ran a series at CTOvision on the Ethics of Big Data (which was the topic of a book he published in 2012 by the same title). Lots of us are thinking about Kord's words of wisdom these days. Techies everywhere, especially data scientists, have also long been tracking the ideas of DJ Patil, the first US Chief Data Scientist, who has advocated that data scientists and executives and leaders of all types understand the ethical dimension of what we are doing. DJ captured many elegant thoughts on this topic in a widely read post on medium at "A Code of Ethics For Data Scientists."

DJ and Kord are not alone. Many technologists, business leaders, politicians, academics informed citizens have been tracking these issues for years.

Then all of a sudden, surprise surprise surprise. On 17 March 2018, The Guardian reported that a political research and data science firm called Cambridge Analytica had inappropriately harvested data from the Facebook profiles of over 50 million of us who had not provided consent for their data to be used for political and psychological profiling.

In discussion with techies, as well as with my surveillance of the social media of many I admire, it seems few were really surprised that this sort of thing happened. Similar things seem to happen all the time, including data from Facebook being used for multiple political research efforts and campaigns over many years. In fact, it seems Facebook is mostly mad because they were not paid for the data use that they normally like to monetize directly through the sale of targeted ads.

It is time I pointed out a very good thing about the present situation with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It has woken up many others to the issue. That growing awareness may help us address the challenges. 

Some opinions:

Just like we should not trust either Apple or the FBI to make the right decisions regarding encryption and data privacy, we should not trust either Facebook or Cambridge Analytica to make the right decisions regarding information privacy. 

Policy makers need informed inputs on this an many other ethical debates, and technologists are well poised to help educate and inform the debate based on our insights. 

So, all of us who are students of technology or developers or leaders of tech teams should take it as a duty to help others understand.

We should also consider not just our own ethics, but how to inform others on the potential damage that can be done by data. This includes, unfortunately, the potential for damage when the data is being used in exactly the way it was designed to be used.

Another point: Humanity can fix this stuff. It will take collective action, which can and probably should include government regulation. But we can fix it. 

As you dwell on your role in fixing this challenge, please keep it in context. I know we can fix this issue and it needs to be a priority. But frankly I believe there are even more significant problems for us techies to help address. An example follows:

The Information Warfare Threat To The United States

Privacy threats are one important component that can feed adversaries of democracy. But there are other challenges. We have produced a draft study on the threats to democracy of information warfare. It has been briefed to 100's of senior leaders in government and in the national security space around government. Based on feedback we will spend much more time on this topic in the coming months including launching a new series on at CTOvision. If you are interested in contributing ideas to this effort please get in touch. We are especially interested in guest posts from technologists who have ideas on how to mitigate information warfare threats.