“Big Data” and how to mine it for profit are red-hot topics in today’s business world. Many corporations now find themselves sitting atop virtual gold mines of customer information. And even small businesses now are attempting to find new ways to profit from their stashes of sales, marketing, and research data.
Like it or not, you can’t block all of the cookies or tracking companies or sites that are following you, and each time you surf the web, you leave behind a “data exhaust” trail that has monetary value to others. Indeed, one recent start-up, Enliken, (“Data to the People”), is offering a way for computer users to gain some control over their data exhaust trail’s monetary value and choose who benefits from it, including some charities.
Ethics of Big Data does not seek to lay down a “hard-and-fast list of rules for the ethical handling of data.” The new book also doesn’t “tell you what to do with your data.” Its goals are “to help you engage in productive ethical discussions raised by today’s big-data-driven enterprises, propose a framework for thinking and talking about these issues, and introduce a methodology for aligning actions with values within an organization.”
It’s heady stuff, packed into just 64 pages. But the book is well written and definitely thought-provoking. It can serve as a focused guide for corporate leaders and others now hoping to get a grip on their own big-data situations, in ways that will not alienate their customers, partners, and stakeholders.
In the view of the authors: “For both individuals and organizations, four common elements define what can be considered a framework for big data:
- “Identity – What is the relationship between our offline identity and our online identity?”
- “Privacy – Who should control access to data?”
- “Ownership – Who owns data, can rights be transferred, and what are the obligations of people who generate and use that data?”
- “Reputation – How can we determine what data is trustworthy? Whether about ourselves, others, or anything else, big data exponentially increases the amount of information and ways we can interact with it. This phenomenon increases the complexity of managing how we are perceived and judged.”
Big-data technology itself is “ethnically neutral,” the authors contend, and it “has no value framework. Individuals and corporations, however, do have value systems, and it is only by asking and seeking answers to ethical questions that we can ensure big data is used in a way that aligns with those values.”
At the same time: “Big data is pushing corporate action further and more fully into individual lives through the sheer volume, variety, and velocity of the data being generated. Big-data product design, development, sales, and management actions expand their influence and impact over individuals’ lives that may be changing the common meanings of words like privacy, reputation, ownership, and identity.”
What will happen next as (1) big data continues to expand and intrude and (2) people and organizations push back harder, is still anybody’s guess. But matters of ethics likely will remain at the center of the conflicts.
Indeed, some big-data gold mines could suffer devastating financial and legal cave-ins if greed is allowed to trump ethics.
— Si Dunn