Ethics in the data mine

You can describe people in words, or you can describe them in numbers. Either system can be abused, but in general words tend to create bonds while numbers tend to create distance. (There’s a reason why parents give their babies names rather than numbers.) History, though, seems to tilt toward numbers, and the tilt is getting steeper as the potential profits get larger. Even the data miners are starting to get creeped out. In a thoughtful article over at O’Reilly Radar, Jim Stogdill, an IT consultant with expertise in large-scale data-management systems, poses a question to his colleagues:

Let me just ask this: If you are involved in data capture, analytics, or customer marketing in your company, would you be embarrassed to admit to your neighbor what about them you capture, store and analyze? Would you be willing to send them a zip file with all of it to let them see it? If the answer is “no,” why not? If I might hazard a guess at the answer, it would be because real relationships aren’t built on asymmetry, and you know that. But rather than eliminate that awkward source of asymmetry, you hide it …

I think what’s interesting is that you can’t help but get caught up in the moment. “If we could just join this stuff with that stuff, and then get this additional attribute, we could build a really sweet model. I’m sure that would get you some prospecting lift.” And then we all look at each other for a moment and go “wow, and that would be kinda creepy, too.” …

Ft. Meade in Maryland is that state’s single biggest consumer of electricity, and no small amount of it is being consumed by Hadoop (or similar) [data-mining computer] clusters that, as it turns out, are probably surveilling you. That is a troublesome thought, but only about half as troublesome to me as the even more thorough, broad, and pervasive corporate surveillance we are unleashing on ourselves. The only thing that keeps me sleeping is that the competitive dimension will slow the rate that these pools of data coalesce.

The time has come, says Stogdill, to think seriously about the ethics of what the geeks and the suits have come to call Big Data.

3 thoughts on “Ethics in the data mine


    I like to tell folk of an older generation nowadays about low carbon technologies and how it is a growing industrial opportunity in many parts of the world. I fully expect, the young people when I am old, to describe to my confused brain, the emerging technology of ‘small data footprint’ services for getting around and doing business. Then I can say to them, ah sure, we had that years ago. It was known as ‘cash’. They will probably say, ‘weird’.

    It was interesting to me though, how many ways there are to harvest the data of people from such a young age today. To ensure, that going into the future, the ‘company’ has an accurate tracer or ‘fix’ on you as you grow into your 20’s, 30’s and beyond into middle age. I observed a special offer in my university was always on the ad screens in the main mall. Student wireless broadband – 10 gigabytes for 10 euro per month. One year contract. All you need is prove of address, a birth cert, a bank account details, and your student ID card. I mean, for 100 euro per student, below on the going market rate for this service (5GB per month per €20 over here at the moment), the company in question, got themselves a whole goodie bag of information, cheaply bought.

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