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Has Big Data ethics gone out the window?

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Criticism is increasing against researchers and engineers for ignoring the moral component of their work

A few years ago, if it was necessary to study some problem that concerned a large number of citizens of a given country, the normal solution was to entrust the task to a social scientist who was specialized in ethnography and who had good knowledge of the context that needed to be analyzed, so that he or she could collect detailed information with the consent of the participants in the study. Nowadays, by contrast, the procedure in such a case is very different. The task can be carried out today remotely, by collecting great volumes of data from widely diverse sources, ranging from official documents to social networks, quite probably without the people involved knowing anything about what is happening.

Situations like the one just described feed the fire of the argument between defenders and detractors of this way of proceeding. Recently, this debate has been the focus of work by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR); by the Pervade project, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation; and by Nature magazine, among others. These discussions are centered on this question: Why are professionals in this field more interested in discovering how to receive more funding than in determining how they can contribute to society and improve our lives?

Underlying this controversy is an attitude that supposedly leads many who dedicate themselves to this work to think too egoistically, according to one of the leading critical voices in this area, entrepreneur Kalev Leetaru. In his opinion, many data scientists behave in a way that doesn’t reflect any moral preoccupation or commitment; they simply consider which questions could be answered with the available tools and material, and with that as a starting point, they draw up their projects. Consequently, Leetaru says, what they are after is funding, publication prestige, and public attention. Their contribution to the common well-being is relegated to the background.

Giants in the information sector, such as Bloomberg, which sells finance software and financial news services, have begun initiatives to combat this problem, which is fundamentally ethical but which could end up having serious legal repercussions. This multinational, which controls approximately a third of the work market for financial information, like its rival Thomson Reuters, works with BrightHive and Data for Democracy to develop the ethical dimension of data science, artificial intelligence, etc. Until now, companies and universities have defended themselves by referring to their competition as an excuse for continuing to access information about third parties in order to manipulate it at their pleasure.

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