“With great power, comes great responsibility.”
Comic book fans will quickly recognize this quote as the words inspiring Peter Parker to become Spider-man. Others will note that Voltaire said it first. Nevertheless, as important as this quote is to history or to Spidey’s future, I think it has even greater relevance for technologists in our data-driven world.
The amount of personal data collected by organizations is staggering. As Facebook and Cambridge Analytica taught us, the opportunity to abuse data is overwhelming. For these reasons, we need to embrace the concept of data ethics.
It’s a thin, thin line between proper use and abuse of data. As data science and related technologies evolve, so does the “art of the possible." While data analysis is not new, we now have the ability to quickly process large amounts of data and make correlations and predictions using disparate data sets. The ease of these efforts creates numerous issues related to privacy, confidentiality, transparency, and identity.
As a result, data ethics emerged as a new branch of ethics to focuses on the moral problems associated with:
Data ethics highlights the complexity of the ethical challenges posed by data science and big data analytics. Gartner previously predicted that one-half of business ethics violations would result from the improper use of big data. In short, our current ethical frameworks no longer apply to data and we must now think differently.
Although generally slow to respond, various governments recently enacted laws to protect consumers. The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in the EU has been described as “privacy by default”, giving citizens strict control of their data. Earlier this year, California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) to protect online privacy and personally identifiable information (PII). Now, the Federal Data Strategy is purporting to make ethical governance one of its core principles. Major corporations are also lining up as privacy advocates in hopes of shaping future legislation in the US.
Privacy may be making a comeback, but we still need data ethics to guide us towards “privacy by design."
Such is the case in the United Kingdom.
The UK created a Data Ethics Framework, as part of its National Digital Strategy. The framework sets clear guidelines for acceptable uses of government data, building in transparency and accountability. The audience is anyone that interacts with government data, from statisticians to policymakers to IT staff and beyond.
As Matt Hancock, the previous UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, stated: “If we fail to preserve the values we care about in our new digital society, then our big data capabilities risk abandoning these values for the sake of innovation and expediency.” Essentially, the UK felt it necessary to document their societal values to ensure their efficacy in the new economy.
I concur with this sentiment and believe that it is time for an international code of data ethics.
The following tenets, based on the UK framework, examples from professional organizations, and my own experience as a CIO, form guidelines for the acceptable use of data as we fully engage in digital transformation.
These ideas are a starting point. A healthy balance between data technologies and privacy rights is possible, but requires an ongoing, international conversation.
Despite concerns, data ethics will not stifle innovation.
Innovation comes from a marriage of collaboration and empathy. Empathy born from thinking about how we use data and its impact on society, combined with a collaborative, open dialogue with citizens and customers around data ethics, will lead to innovation. Further, under current conditions, ethics can be a competitive advantage, much like “green” technology for environmental-minded companies.
There’s a historic mistrust of institutions, especially those that abuse the great power of information. Consequently, we all have a great responsibility to embrace data ethics. The future of our digital economy hangs in the balance.
This piece was originally published via GovLoop.com on November 19th, 2018.
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