Telephone traffic, GPS data, photos, patient information in the healthcare service: these days, we leave a digital footprint wherever we go. Together, these footprints form what is known as ‘big data’. This huge volume of data is prompting important ethical questions. Questions to which we do not yet have satisfactory answers, says Professor of Ethics and International Politics, Dr Andrej Zwitter. He thinks it is now time for ethicists to start formulating these answers. We have to think about what academics, governments and industry should be allowed to do with this collected data, but also how we can teach our children to live in a world surrounded by data. Zwitter has set up an international think-tank to discuss this matter: the International Network Observatory.
‘We store enormous volumes of data’, says Zwitter. ‘Two researchers, Smolan and Erwitt, worked out that we currently store more than five billion gigabytes of data every ten minutes. This is the equivalent of all the data stored from the start of the computer era until 2003. What’s more, this trend is set to continue: it is estimated that by 2015, we will be storing the same volume of data every ten seconds.’
‘Big data is not simply more of something we’ve been doing all along. Big data is fundamentally different. We used to collect traditional statistical data, small data, for a specific reason, so it was accurate and clean. But collecting big data is a whole new ball game. Companies and analysts try to collect as much data as possible on a certain subject, accumulating mountains of data on anything that is remotely related to their chosen field, including data from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The data is jumbled, polluted and represents reality: they have created a digital, reflected reality.’
‘Big data obviously generates a lot of useful functionalities. But the digital reality thus created can also cause countless problems. For example, you will always find correlations and links in large databases. Men who buy nappies buy more beer than average. There is no direct link between these facts; the only common denominator is a baby. This is a fairly innocent example, but large-scale data sets increase your risk of being randomly associated with someone who has committed an atrocious crime, for example, without having the slightest moral responsibility. This can have a very real impact.’
‘Predictions based on collected data can also have a disastrous effect. Data analysts use information about groups to predict consumer shopping habits so that shops can organize their purchasing and design their shops accordingly. But this group strategy can have implications for individuals. Imagine living in an area where as an unemployed person with a certain make of car, you are more than ninety percent more likely to steal from a shop? Should we lock you up as a precaution or send round a social worker? Considered guilty on the basis of a prediction, you may very well find yourself stigmatized.’
‘All in all, big data is causing a fundamental shift in ethics. It no longer involves an individual action or decision with predictable results or implications, but a situation in which you make subconscious decisions or do things automatically, which then have unexpected or unintended consequences.’
‘So it’s time to start thinking seriously about the ethical implications of the way we are datafying our real lives into big data, and how we want to deal with this. Universities must take the lead in this discussion. The University of Groningen has set up an international think-tank (the International Network Observatory) with Liverpool Hope University, the Austrian Institute for International Politics (OIIP) and the European Centre for Applied Research (ECFAR) to consider these very issues.’
‘I am in favour of a code of conduct for people who work with large volumes of personal and anonymous social data, rather like the oath that doctors have to take. Teaching is another essential aspect: people must be made to understand what big data is, what is stored and how it can be used (and misused). We should start in primary schools. Children have to earn a road safety diploma, so why not a digital living diploma?’
Andrej J. Zwitter (Klagenfurt, 1982) studied law and philosophy at the Karl Franzens University in Graz (Austria). He carried out PhD research into terrorism, international law and the philosophy of law at the Ruhr-Universität
Bochum, Germany. Zwitter is Professor of International Relations at the University of Groningen and director of the European Centre for Applied Research.
International Network Observatory
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