by Andrej Zwitter, University of
Groningen – December 17, 2014

Big Data and associated phenomena, such as
social media, have surpassed the capacity of the average consumer to judge the effects
of his or her actions and their knock-on effects, as Facebook parties and the
importance of social media for the Arab Spring vividly demonstrated. We are
moving towards changes in how ethics has to be perceived: away from individual
decisions with specific and knowable outcomes, towards actions by many, often
unaware that they may have taken actions with unintended consequences for
anyone. Responses will require a rethinking of ethical choices, the lack
thereof and how this will guide scientists, governments, and corporate agencies
in handling Big Data.

Data versus Traditional Ethics

Since the onset of modern ethics in the
late 18th century, we took premises such as individual moral responsibility for
granted. Today, however, it seems Big Data requires ethics to do some
rethinking of its assumptions, particularly about individual moral agency. The
novelty of Big Data poses some known ethical difficulties (such as for
privacy), which are not per se new. In addition to its novelty, the very nature
of Big Data has an underestimated impact on the individual’s ability to
understand its potential, thus make informed decisions. Examples include among
others, the “likes” on Facebook sold to marketing companies in order to more
specifically target certain micro-markets; information generated out of Twitter
feed based sentiment analyses for political manipulation of groups, etc.

In a hyper-connected era the concept of
power, which is so crucial for ethics and moral responsibility, is changing
into a more networked fashion. To retain the individual’s agency, i.e.
knowledge and ability to act is one of the main challenges for the governance
socio-technical epistemic systems. Big Data induced hyper-networked ethics
exacerbate the effect of network knock-on effects. In other words, the nature
of hyper-networked societies increases and randomizes the collateral damage
caused by actions within this network and thereby the unintended consequences
of people’s action.


As Global Warming is an effect of emissions
of many individuals and companies, Big Data is the effect of individual
actions, sensory data, and other real world measurements creating a digital
image of our reality, i.e. “datafication”. Already, simply the absence of
knowledge about which data is in fact collected or what it can be used for puts
the “data generator” (e.g. online consumers, cellphone owning people, etc.) at
an ethical disadvantage qua knowledge and free will. The “internet of things”
and ambient intelligence online further contribute to the distance between one
actor’s knowledge and will and the other actor’s source of information and
power, as well as it strengthens the dependency on the delivery of services
dependent on Big Data. Furthermore, the ownership over Big Data leads to a
power imbalance between different stakeholders benefitting mostly corporate
agencies and governments with the necessary knowhow and equipment to generate
intelligence and knowledge from data.

In the sphere of education, children,
adolescents, and grown ups still need to be educated about the unintended
consequences of their digital footprints (beyond digital literacy). Social
science research might have to consider this educational gap and draw its
conclusions about the ethical implications of using anonymous, social Big Data,
which nonetheless reveals much about groups. In the area of law and politics,
political campaign observers, law enforcement, social services and lawyers will
increasingly become data forensic investigators to utilize Big Data themselves
and to recognize the illegal exploitation of the possibilities of Big Data.

A full open
access version of the paper
has been published in Big Data & Society.