Why Is Big Data Such A Moral Predicament?

On Wednesday night I took a trip to the Google Campus in Shoreditch to watch some of the top fellas in the Big Data industry discuss some controversial questions.

The panel included the likes of journalist Paul Bradshaw, Daniel Hulme (founder of Satalia) and Duncan Ross (Director of Data Science at Teradata). Needless to say, they knew what they were talking about. What was firstly discussed and quickly put aside was the definition of Big Data. Big Data does it what it says on the tin. As Data Analytics has become more advanced, we have found further, better ways to extract data and now we have LOADS OF IT! Most of the time we have too much data (i.e. Big Data) and so we need experts to make Big Data into manageable chunks, and that’s all there is to it.

But the topic that really pricked my ears up was the ethics of data (probably as I’m a Philosophy graduate) with questions such as:

Should there be a limit on how much of our personal data is stored? Why this information is not made more public so we are aware of what data experts know? How are these institutions gathering this data? Should there be informed consent to use our data? How will our data be used?

I tend to take the more optimistic, or naïve, view being that I have nothing to hide and companies using my data can surely only benefit me. A great example in recent times of Big Data benefiting the consumer is when Tesco kicked off the Clubcard in the past decade. Suddenly Tesco was able to accurately track our purchase behaviour. With this, they can offer incentives such as discounts on your favourite brand of shampoo or bonus points for being such a loyal customer. The use of data has a twofold benefit. We can get more out of the companies that we purchase from, which in turn creates more profits for those companies. Win-win right?

Well, those select few who have the Big Data and have mastered it have billions of pounds worth of power in their hands. An example of Data going against you would be health insurance. Health insurance companies buy data from the supermarkets you shop in, your gym and your private health clinic. This insurance company can quickly and accurately discover that you buy a stupendous amount of ready meals, rarely go to the gym and have an ancestral history of diabetes, so when you go online for your insurance quote it’s through the roof!

Many have argued that the more data companies have on us, the easier it is to manipulate us. But I feel that the more data the world has, the more accurate the world will become. What’s wrong, for example, with more accurate advertising so that you’re not bombarded by stuff you don’t need and potentially stuff you really want.

So, what do you think?

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