The Ethical Challenges of Big Data

Gartner recently listed “Strategic Big Data” as one of the key trends that will influence the shape of businesses in the years to come. Big Data is short for the supercomputing possibilities associated with utilizing massive data sets to help us visualize relationships, influence and behavioral propensities. Data scientists are emerging who learn who to make set predictive patterns in large unstructured data sets. These patterns offer incredible insights for every field from healthcare to weather analysis to tracking and anticipating the activity of terrorists.

In the recent Boston bombing, the FBI used big data and crowdsourcing to track down the bomber. [1] If you watch the headlines, you’ll notice day after day how big data is making a big impact across multiple industries. Over the last few years, big data has moved from buzzword to an active reality shaping shaping law enforcement, university strategies, corporate direction and even SMBs. To help us get a sense of the growth in big data as well as the growth in shared information, I.B.M. told the New York Times that 90 percent of the data that now exists in the world has been created over the last two years.”[2] They estimate that “the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data daily.”

The amazing possibilities for applying big data with the expansive ability to collect big data is not only creating new opportunities, but raising ethical challenges. Over the last several days, the news cycle has been dominated by reports about government intrusion into our privacy. Consider some of the following headlines:

  • Speak Softly and Carry a Big Data
  • Is Big Data turning the Government into Big Brother?
  • Big Data is Watching You
  • Big Brother Meets Big Data
  • and many more

This reaction concerning the government actions may be echoed again and again in the coming years as society grapples with the every intruding role of big data into the lives of ordinary individuals. The undeniable benefits of big data coupled the potential for incredible privacy intrusion of big data should challenge organizations and our government to have a more thoughtful conversation about the role of ethics in big data.

Just this past May, the Educause Review offered an insightful look at the role of big data in education, “Ethics, Big Data, and Analytics: A Model for Application.”[3] They acknowledge the ethical problem that big data poses since it is so new and there are not established universals, and they also acknowledge that there has not been enough strong reflection on the ethical issues related to big data.

A couple years back, Jefferey F. Rayport raised a simliar challenge in the MIT Technology Review. [4] Rayport suggests that big data needed a practical code of ethics because big data only looked like it would grow and grow influencing how business advertise, how products are developed, and how organizations eavesdrop on other people. While Rayport did not offer an exhaustive solution, he did suggest three areas where organizations should begin to discuss the role of big data.

Clarity of Practices – Organizations need to be more open and honest about what data they are actually collecting.

Simplicity of Settings – Rayport suggests that companies should give consumers simple options for determining the level of privacy they prefer. While some companies, like Facebook, offer privacy options, it is often so detailed and complex that a consumer feels overwhelmed.

Privacy by Design – “Ann Cavoukian proposes “that organizations incorporate privacy protections into everything they do. This does not mean Web and mobile businesses collect no customer information. It simply means they make customer privacy a guiding principle, right from the start.”

Exchange of ValueSharing personal information should bring value to the consumer. Rayport calls for radical transparency so that organizations could talk about their big data solutions and “show customers what they will get in exchange for sharing their personal information.”

This conversation is really just beginning, but it will continue to take shape in the months and years ahead, and it’s in the best interests of consumers and organizations alike to ask hard, thoughtful about big data and the ethical responsibilities it requires.

[1] Mike Wheatley. “FBI Uses Big Data & Crowdsourcing To Hunt The Boston Bomber.” Silicon Angle, April 17, 2013 <>
[2] James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. “How the U.S. Uses Technology to Mine More Data More Quickly.” New York Times, Junes 8, 2013 <>
[3] James E. Willis, III, John P. Campbell, and Matthew D. Pistilli. “Ethics, Big Data, and Analytics: A Model for Application.” Educause Review, May 6, 2013 <>
[4] Jefferey F. Rayport. “What Big Data Needs: A Code of Ethical Practices.” MIT Technology Review, May 26, 2011 <>

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