What is Our Big Data Worth?

As the world becomes increasingly digital, personal data is more exposed than ever. The ways that data is generated – as well as the sophisticated tools used to capture it – is expanding. You only need to look at the device held in your hand to see a multitude of apps that are tracking your location, capturing your movement e.g. health and sleep data, and mining your conversation – via personal messaging tools.

Yet despite the rapid rise of data collection, we’re not prepared with the ethical or legal frameworks needed to maintain it effectively.
Ethics surrounding data practice is a conversation that needs input from a range of people. Governments, organizations, legal professionals, software engineers and data analysts need to have a voice, particularly when the concept of a price tag on data comes into question.

Why Big Data ethics is important
Big data ethics affects us all in so many areas of life. By considering the ethical implications we can begin to understand its worth. There are a few key points to consider.

Who owns your data by default? What does it look like for someone to give their consent for their data to be used? For example, using a particular mobile messaging tool shouldn’t necessarily give the provider permission to read and analyze personal messages. This is where the need for explicit consent comes in and it’s closely tied to the question of data ownership.
The European Union targeted just this when it introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018. This regulation is leading the way in ensuring a data protection by design and default mentality.
By clarifying what consent processes need to be in place, those in the field of Big Data can work towards a more acceptable use of personal data.
Privacy concerns can often be seen as a limitation in the field of data analytics. Applying too much significance to individual privacy may negatively impact the potential for use within the wider society. For example, sharing patients’ health information may shed light on causes of diseases or potential treatments, even though sharing the data could be seen as a breach of privacy.
Privacy can also be an obstacle in some legal situations. For example, an individual’s data may be needed to solve legal cases, such as determining a person’s innocence. Recently Amazon was requested to share private data from an Alexa device. This data was potentially able to provide insight into a murder that happened in the house where the device was present.
Privacy for big data is important, but does have contextual nuances that need to be defined and categorized. One way this is being approached is by separating someone’s identity from the data and ensuring transparency about how privacy applies to it.

There’s no doubt that data has considerable value. Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the sum of $16 billion in 2014, and it could be argued that this move was driven by the value of the mobile data held by the service. Companies will pay a lot of money for control over data, but how much is it actually worth?
To answer this question accurately experts have been looking at the price of data available on the black market, or to the equity of tech companies that offer their services in exchange for data.

Beyond financial worth, we also have to consider the ethical value placed on big data sharing. With the resources available to us to use data for good, how much do privacy and consent outweigh social good? There are arguments both ways.
In one case, an organization tested an app that would predict the onset of mania in patients with bipolar disorder. While this could provide extensive insight into how mobile use predicted mania onset, questions were raised around the ethics of disclosing people’s mental health status without their consent, or even their awareness.

Applying Big Data ethics in the real world
While it may seem like setting ethical standards is the responsibility of policymakers and governments, anyone involved in the handling of big data should have a voice in the discussion. Part of this involves building ethics into all stages of the experience, beginning at an educational level.
People in the field of big data today should have a solid grasp of ethics, understanding the way it can affect their industry. For example:

  • In health, the balance between keeping patient data purely to assist in their care, or to use it for research and further social good
  • In financial services, building data protection into all connected systems and platforms
  • In education, tailoring students learning to their individual needs and abilities
  • In travel, tracking tourist movements and trends through GPS signals in mobile devices.

Data ethics is important for everyone, especially those that have to work with data every day. Having a qualified data analytics expert can be paramount to the overall business and stakeholders involved. 

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