Data ethics and power


From the research paper “Making Sense of Data Ethics”(Internet Policy Review, 2019):

What is data ethics?

“In this section I introduce the emerging field of data ethics as the cross-disciplinary study of the distribution of societal powers in the socio-technical systems that form the fabric of the “Big Data Society”. Based on theories, practices and methods within applied ethics, legal studies and cultural studies, social and political sciences, as well as a movement within policy and business, I present an analytical framework for a “data ethics of power”.

As a point of departure, I define a data ethics of power as an action-oriented analytical framework concerned with making visible the power relations embedded in the “Big Data Society” and the conditions of their negotiation and distribution, in order to point to design, business, policy, social and cultural processes that support a human-centric distribution of power. In a previous book (Hasselbalch and Tranberg, 2016) we described data ethics as a social movement of change and action: “Across the globe, we’re seeing a data ethics paradigm shift take the shape of a social movement, a cultural shift and a technological and legal development that increasingly places the human at the centre” (p. 10). Thus, data ethics can be viewed as a proactive agenda concerned with shifting societal power relations and with the aim to balance the powers embedded in the Big Data Society. This shift is evidenced in legal developments (such as the GDPR negotiation process) and in new citizen privacy concerns and practices such as the rise in use of ad blockers and privacy enhancing services, etc. In particular, new types of businesses emerge that go beyond mere compliance with data protection legislation when incorporating data ethical values in collection and processing of data, as well as their general innovation practices, technology development, branding and business policies.

Here, I use the notion of “Big Data Society” to reflectively position data ethics in the context of a recent data (re)evolution of the “Information Society”, enabled by computer technologies and dictated by a transformation of all things (and people) into data formats (“datafication”) in order to “quantify the world” (Mayer-Schonberger & Cukier, 2013, p. 79) to organise society and predict risks. While I suggest that this is not an arbitrary evolution, but can also be viewed as an expression of negotiations between different ontological views on the status of the human being and the role of science and technology. As the realisation of a prevailing ideology of modernist scientific practices to command nature and living things, the critical infrastructures of the Big Data Society may therefore very well be described as modernity embodied in a “lived reality” (Edwards, 2002, p. 191) of control and order. From this viewpoint, a data ethics of power can be described as a type of post-modernist, or in essence vitalist, call for a specific kind of “ethical action” (Frohmann, 2007, p. 63) to free the living/human being from the constraints of the practices of control embedded in the technological infrastructures of modernity that at the same time reduce the value of the human being. It is here valuable to understand current calls for data ethical action in extension of the philosopher Henri Bergson’s vitalist arguments at the turn of the last century against the scientific rational intellect that provides no room for, or special status to, the living (Bergson, 1988, 1998). In a similar ethical framework, Gilles Deleuze, who was also greatly inspired by Bergson (Deleuze, 1988), later described over-coded “Societies of Control” (Deleuze, 1992), which reduce people (“dividuals”) to a code marking their access and locking their bodies in specific positions (p. 5). More recently, Spiekerman et al. (2017) in their Anti-Transhumanist Manifesto directly oppose a vision of the human as merely information objects, no different than other information objects (that is; non-human informational things), which they describe as “an expression of the desire to control through calculation. Their approach is limited to reducing the world to data-based patterns suited for mechanical manipulation” (p. 2).

However, a data ethics of power should also be viewed as a direct response to the power dynamics embedded in and distributed via our very present and immediate experiences of a “Liquid Surveillance Society” (Lyon, 2010). Surveillance studies scholar David Lyon (2014) envisions an “ethics of Big Data practices” (2014, p. 10) to renegotiate what is increasingly exposed to be an unequal distribution of power in the technological big data infrastructures. Within this framework we do not only pay conventional attention to the state as the primary power actor (of surveillance), but also include new stakeholders that gain power through accumulation and access to big data. For example, in the analytical framework of a data ethics of power, changing power dynamics are progressively more addressed in the light of the information asymmetry between individuals and the big data companies that collect and process data in digital networks (Pasquale, 2015; Powles, 2015–2018; Zuboff, 5 March 2016, 9 September 2014, 2019).

Beyond this fundamental theoretical framing, a data ethics of power can be explored in an interdisciplinary field addressing the distribution of power in the Big Data Society in diverse ways.

For instance, in a computer ethics perspective, power distributions are approached as ethical dilemmas or as implications of the very design and practical application of computer technologies. Indeed, technologies are never neutral, they embody moral values and norms (Flanagan, Howe, & Nissenbaum, 2008), hence power relations can be identified through analysing how technologies are designed in ethical or ethically problematic ways. Information science scholars Batya Friedman and Helen Nissenbaum (1996) have illustrated different types of bias embedded in existing computer systems that are used for tasks such as flight reservations and the assignment of medical graduates to their first job, and have presented a framework for such issues in the design of computer systems. From this perspective, we can also describe data ethics as what the philosophy and technology scholar Philip Brey terms a “Disclosive Computer Ethics”, identifying moral issues such as “privacy, democracy, distributive justice, and autonomy” (Brey, 2000, p. 12) in opaque information technologies. Phrased differently, a data ethics of power presupposes that technology has “politics” or embedded “arrangements of power and authority” (Winner, 1980, p. 123). Case studies of specific data processing software and their use can be defined as data ethics case studies of power, notably the “Machine Bias” study (Angwin et al., 2016), which exposed discrimination embedded in data processing software used in United States defence systems, and Cathy O’Neil’s (2016) analysis of the social implications of the math behind big data decision making in everything from getting insurance, credit to getting and holding a job.

Nevertheless, data systems are increasingly ingrained in society in multiple forms (from apps to robotics) and have limitless and wide-ranging ethical implications (from price differentiation to social scoring), necessitating that we look beyond design and computer technology as such. Data ethics as a recent designation represents what philosophers Luciano Floridi and Mariateresa Taddeo (2016, p. 3) describe as a primarily semantic shift within a computer and information ethics philosophical tradition from a concern with the ethical implications of the “hardware” to one with data and data science practices. However, looking beyond applied ethics in the field of philosophy to a data ethics of power, our theorisation of the Big Data Society is more than just semantic. The conceptualisation of a data ethics of power can also be explored in a legal framework, as an aspect of the rule of law and protection of citizens’ rights in an evolving Big Data Society. Here, redefining the concept of privacy (Cohen, 2013; Solove, 2008) in a legal studies framework, addresses the ethical implications of new data practices and configurations that challenge existing laws, and thereby the balancing of powers in a democratic society. As legal scholars Neil M. Richards and Jonathan King (2014) argue: “Existing privacy protections focused on managing personally identifying information are not enough when secondary uses of big data sets can reverse engineer past, present, and even future breaches of privacy, confidentiality, and identity” (p. 393). Importantly, these authors define big data “socially, rather than technically, in terms of the broader societal impact they will have,” (Richards & King, 2014, p. 394) providing a more inclusive analysis of a “big data ethics” (p. 393) and thus pointing to the ethical implications of the empowerment of institutions that possess big data capabilities at the expense of “individual identity” (p. 395).

Looking to the policy, business and technology field, the ethical implications of the power of data and data technologies are framed as an issue of growing data asymmetry between big data institutions and citizens in the very design of data technologies. For example, the conceptual framework of the “Personal Data Store Movement” (Hasselbalch & Tranberg, 27 September 2016) is described by the non-profit association MyData Global Movement as one in which “[i]ndividuals are empowered actors, not passive targets, in the management of their personal lives both online and offline – they have the right and practical means to manage their data and privacy” (Poikola, Kuikkaniemi, & Honko, 2018). In this evolving business and technology field, the emphasis is on moving beyond mere legal data protection compliance, implementing values and ethical principles such as transparency, accountability and privacy by design (Hasselbalch & Tranberg, 2016), and ethical implications are mitigated by values-based approaches to the design of technology. For example, engineering standards such as those of IEEE P7000s Ethics and AI standards 3 that seek to develop ethics by design standards and guiding principles for the development of artificial intelligence (AI). A values based design approach is also revisited in recent policy documents such as section 5.2. “Embedded values in technology – ethical-by-design” of the European Parliament’s “Resolution on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics” adopted in February 2019.

A key framework for data ethics is the human-centric approach that we increasingly see included within ethics guidelines and policy documents. For example, the European Parliament’s (2019, V.) resolution states that “whereas AI and robotics should be developed and deployed in a human-centred approach with the aim of supporting humans at work and at home…”. The EC High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence’s draft ethics guidelines also stress how the human-centric approach to AI is one that “strives to ensure that human values are always the primary consideration” (working document, 18 December 2018, p. iv), and directly associate it with the balance of power in democratic societies: “political power is human centric and bounded. AI systems must not interfere with democratic processes” (p. 7). The human-centric approach in European policy-making is framed in a European fundamental rights framework (as for example extensively described in the European Commission’s AI High Level Expert group’s draft ethics guidelines) and/or with an emphasis on the human being’s interests prevailing over “the sole interests of society or science” (article 2, “Oviedo Convention”). Practical examples of the human-centric approach can also be found in technology and business developments that aim to preserve the specific qualities of humans in the development of information processing technologies. Examples include the Human in the Loop (HITL) approach to the design of AI, The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards on human-centred design (HCD) and the Personal Data Store Movement, which is defined as “A Nordic Model for human-centered personal data management and processing.” (Poikola et al., 2018)”

Check out the entire research paper including the bibliography:

Click to access Internet-Policy-Review-Making-sense-of-data-ethics.-The-powers-behind-the-data-ethics-debate-in-European-policymaking-2019-06-14.pdf