A new, high-value asset is being traded on global markets. Described as ‘the new oil’, data has powered the growth of digital giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook by allowing them to target customers more effectively and boost sales.
Other businesses have followed their lead. Like a cash crop, data is now harvested from customers, then processed, shared or sold on. As services become more ‘data-driven’, consumers’ personal details and past behaviour influence the choice they are offered - from the stories that appear in their newsfeeds to their ability to access credit and the price they pay for insurance.
However, by limiting people’s options in this way, big data could undermine the free market and result in discrimination. There is also the risk that unscrupulous organisations could use this wealth of knowledge to manipulate our behaviour, influence how we spend our money and even the way we vote.
With a few big corporates controlling the data of millions of people, big data has created a power imbalance. Some would also say it has laid the foundations for a surveillance society, which could allow governments to monitor and control individuals’ behaviour and limit their freedom of choice.
Although public concern is growing, the big data society is hard to escape. Apps, social networks and online services are part of everyday life and those who don’t sign up and agree to give their personal data are excluded. Similarly, many of the essential services we rely on are data-driven.
As part of a research project, myself and three other researchers brought together a panel of experts to outline the threats that big data holds and what organisations, individuals and society as a whole can do to tackle them.
What businesses need to do now
Until now, uptake of big data has been largely driven by companies, which all too often have focused on pursuing their own interests at the expense of consumers. As the law has failed to keep pace with technology, unethical practices have become commonplace.
Not surprisingly, there is now growing mistrust of businesses. Just as Facebook is facing a backlash, organisations need to address these concerns urgently and adopt more ethical and transparent practices or face the wrath of the public and the law. Our experts identified five key issues that businesses need to consider:
Big data raises ethical risks all along the value chain in which data is sourced, analysed and shared. Terms and conditions are often vague and individuals do not understand what data is being collected, or what it will be used for. Companies need to do more to gain their customer's informed consent, preserve anonymity, ensure transparency in data sharing and safeguard against its unethical use by other parties.
The quality of decisions depends on the quality of the original data. While we understand how to ensure quality in conventional data, big data is more complex. It may be gathered from different sources and contexts, and the meaning might change as it is amalgamated and processed.
The way organisations use big data will reflect on the trust the public place in them. Businesses which build a reputation for ethical practices will find it easier to collect data in future.
Organisations need to establish new rules and procedures. Even where formal policies are in place, if unethical practices go unchecked they can become part of the business culture. Education and training can help to build shared norms and values.
Decisions based on big data usually rely on algorithms or automation, creating further problems. Because algorithms base their predictions on historical and subjective data, and correlations rather than cause and effect, it may lead to racial profiling and discrimination. Similarly, decisions with little or no human involvement can be difficult to interpret. Who would take responsibility if things go wrong in these cases?
The role of individuals and society
While businesses need to take a lead, they cannot be left to tackle these challenges alone – the public and government must also play a role. Individuals need to be better informed about big data and understand how it is influencing their choices. They need to be able to engage with governments, have a say on how it is regulated, and put pressure on organisations to adopt ethical practices.
Governments, universities and other bodies need to promote ethical governance, while authorities must penalise deviations. We need to find ways for organisations to be able to use big data without subjecting society to an Orwellian level of surveillance – and for societies to share in the benefits without coercing individuals to provide data.
Big data offers opportunities to advance human societies, but brings challenges for all concerned. Until now, the benefits have largely been felt by businesses, but it is time for a balancing of interests. New principles and guidelines, together with enforcement of the laws, should help to spread the benefits, build public confidence in big data and make it a positive force for society.
Dr Ida Someh is a lecturer in business information systems at UQ Business School. This article is based on her research conducted in conjunction with Professor Michael Davern, Dr Christoph Breidbach and Professor Graeme Shanks.