Big Data and Ethics

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Big Data and Ethics conference, a half-day program featuring four expert speakers and a Q&A/panel discussion sponsored by Corporate Communications International held at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College.

The program was fundamentally to understand what Big Data is, and how it’s being collected and used by corporations, governments and NGOs, as well as to share some of the ethical concerns of Big Data. The speakers included Jennifer E. Miller, PhD, Assistant Professor at NYU School of Medicine and President of Bioethics International; Nanda Kumar, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the Zicklin School of Business; Nanda Kumar, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the Zicklin School of Business; Nizan Geslevich Packin an attorney and professor at Zicklin School of Business; and Ronald Jansen, the Assistant Director of the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) in New York.

I think we all know that we’re constantly being tracked, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, cloud connectivity, social media usage, and the Internet of things, but if you’re like me, you probably think less often of data collection methods such as debit card usage, E-ZPass, loyalty cards, satellite imagery, and your email inboxes. Even your wireless router can now be used to track your family’s movements inside your own home.

The patterns of all this information are tracked and measured to provide significant data sets to make assumptions about behavior. The data is bought and sold by companies and governments for positive reasons such as addressing public health concerns, mobilizing political movements, or developing solutions to infrastructure. But Big Data is often used for manipulative marketing, sowing divisive popular opinion, swaying elections, and other nefarious, big-brother-ish behavior. In fact, the negative possibilities are practically dystopian; hence the conversation around ethics.

In one particularly interesting example that was brought up by Jennifer E. Miller, the University of Arizona is tracking its students through their ID cards (swipe at the dining hall, swipe at the library, swipe in your dorm room, etc.) to predict the likelihood that a student will drop out, and it’s 85-90% effective.

If Student A, on multiple occasions, uses her CatCard at the same location at roughly the same time as Student B, it would suggest a social interaction between the two… [The researchers] additionally used the CatCard data to look at the regularity of students’ routines and whether or not they had fairly established patterns of activity during the school week.

Considered together with demographic information and other predictive measures of freshman retention, an analysis of students’ social interactions and routines was able to accurately predict 85 to 90 percent of the freshmen who would not return for a second year at the UA, with those having less-established routines and fewer social interactions most at-risk for leaving.

The University of Arizona example seems like just one drop in an ocean of possible methods of and reasons to track human behavior.

From what I can understand two of the main ethical questions are: who ultimately owns YOUR data and do companies have a responsibility to disclose how you’re being tracked and what that data is used for? Since Facebook, for instance, profits off the free data that you supply every time you update your status or friend someone, should you ethically be compensated, too? What is their responsibility once your data is in Facebook’s hands. We’re currently seeing a real-time example of these ethical quandaries playing out in the news with Cambridge Analytica.

The New York Times published an opinion piece this week that seems timely: How Democracy Can Survive Big Data.

The EU recently put laws in place to begin to address some of these ethical concerns about ownership and usage, which will have a significant impact on many large corporations. Will the U.S. follow suit?

While I expected that, as a marketer, I might glean some insights as to how to best navigate the ethical concerns as I continue to utilize personalization and other methods to attract eyeballs to Tribe Pictures. However, the main ideas behind the conference surfaced much larger issues about humanity and the role all of us will take in creating an ethical framework for this new data infrastructure that will affect every facet of life on earth.

I want to thank Michael Goodman and CCI for the invitation to attend.

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