Big Data and Ethics

by Olsson Center staff

Big Data was one of the buzzwords of 2012. It captured the imaginations of journalists, academics and the business world. Like all buzzwords, it encapsulates a phenomenon that was already in existence.

Large companies have been using big data for years to understand their customers and their market. University and non-profit organizations have used data mining to learn more about their prospective donors. After 9/11, big data blossomed in the community of federal intelligence agencies and defense contractors. Online users have been freely offering personal information on social networking sites for more than a decade.

Big data is a powerful business tool, with great potential for solving the toughest problems. However, it is the potential of ill intent that concerns many. In a January InformationWeek article, columnist Eric Lundquist says there is a growing need for big data ethics experts in modern business. How should organizations use big data responsibly?

Major concerns include privacy, consent to disclose information, transfers of information (buying and selling), security and uses of the information. Do consumers totally trust the companies to be good stewards of their information? Perhaps one of the most famous cases involved the father of a teen girl who was upset with Target after the company sent his daughter coupons for baby products. It turned out the company had deduced that the girl was pregnant based upon purchases while her father was unaware of the pregnancy.

Are all stakeholders taken into account when big data is at work? While in most of these cases the individual is the consumer stakeholder, but increasingly the individual is becoming the product. For example, Facebook packages user information to their true consumers, companies wishing to advertise on the site. Certainly the Internet has contributed to the amount and availability of big data.

In terms of enforcement, history has shown that government regulation tends to lag new technology. Have we as individuals fully grasped the power and consequences of big data in our daily lives?

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