The Ethics of Big Data

Whenever I hear about people using big data to make decisions, I always wonder about the sources. I want to understand more about the data being used and how it was gathered. More importantly, who supplied the data? Equally important is to have insight into who designed the algorithms analyzing all the data. The reason why it matters is because each one of these points, and several others, can contain bias. And in most cases, they probably do.

For example, consider what we understand to be the most common symptoms of a heart attack. My first guesses would be symptoms such as pain in the left arm, feeling faint or dizzy, sweaty, etc. These symptoms form the basis for assessment and triage protocols. However, they’re also based on symptoms typically documented for men, not women. From what I understand, women generally don’t experience the tell-tale pain in the left arm. When all of this data surrounding heart attack patients supports decision making, shouldn’t we be considering the bias built into that? How does the data account for differences in men and women? How do these differences translate into decisions and protocols?

Another important aspect are the ownership issues of the data. I always feel leery about letting websites or apps track my movements. Over the years, the tracking has been steadily improving. For instance, if I shop online and maybe decide not to purchase things in my cart, I almost always get a reminder email (or several) about it. But shouldn’t this be my private decision whether or not I purchase something online?

Somehow, somewhere, someone is aggregating and analyzing this data about my purchasing habits. However, the gathering, analysis, and outcome of this process is a mystery to me. At any given time, the data collected about me and my online habits is out of my control. Even though this data about me, and others, likely increases profits for companies, I’m not seeing these benefits.

To me the collection and ownership aspects of data are overdue for a long discussion about ethics. Is it ethical for companies to collect and use so much data about us? Is it ethical for companies to use data about our online habits as currency to keep us using their products and services? Protecting our personal data will come at a high price, one that has yet to be established.

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