crisis, europe, big data

Big Data – Ethics

In this second article in the series on Big Data, Ethics is central. Ethics are the most important factor in the discussion about Big Data. It is the difference between game changing or game wrecking.


Ethics are applied by everyone every day. In addition to the prevailing formal norms and values ​​as laid down in legislation, it is also about morality in a society. It is the agreements in society how we treat each other. The tricky part is that morality varies from society to society, but also changes over time. However, there are several principles that are considered universal. This includes freedom of religion [views], freedom from want, freedom of speech and freedom from fear. These are the basic freedoms that Benjamin Franklin has identified as basic human freedoms. This has placed the most important ethical pillars on which Western societies rest.


Privacy is defined as a civil right to safeguard people’s fundamental ethical values. Good privacy legislation regulates that citizens can be themselves, speak fearlessly and enter into contact with others fearlessly, without fear of any consequences. The unrestrained collection of Big Data is at odds with this. It is often only retrospectively examined whether Big Data has undesirably infringed the privacy of citizens. This only increases Big Data’s fear among the public. Politicians are therefore forced to take unorthodox measures to curtail Big Data.


A well-thought-out ethical framework can act as an agent within which decisions about how, where, when, who, why and for how long can be made. Such a framework brings individuals, collectives and companies together to jointly implement the management of Big Data.

The responsibility of serving his privacy cannot be left unilaterally with the individual. In many areas, citizens lack the insight or the opportunity to protect their privacy. Good ethics is also about empowering people to handle and make decisions about their data, such as modification and deletion, while the responsibility for management remains with developers.

Ensuring transparent data management, information sharing, engagement and taking responsibility builds and builds trust with the community. That trust is fundamental to data collection. Firstly, to prevent unwanted government intervention, but also to ensure that citizens are willing to share certain data with companies.

Negative effects.

The negative consequences of collecting and analyzing data are not equally distributed. Some communities may be more exposed than others, and vulnerable individuals and groups may face serious risks.

The use of crowdsourcing for crime reporting in Mexico has led drug cartels to start following these traces and subsequently lynched participants. Predictive police models, using big data to create neighborhood hot spots where crime is expected, risk reinforcing existing racial and class prejudices and institutionalizing differential police work that ignores other factors. But the collection of patient data, such as in the Netherlands, can also lead to health insurance companies screening for clinical picture, life expectancy and applying premium differentiation, without the patient having to be responsible for his clinical picture. [Genetics]


Ethical principles must be included from the beginning when designing or assessing projects. These principles should be based on informed consent, data ownership, accountability and transparency when it comes to data protection and access to data.

Informed consent goes beyond just raising awareness about the terms of the service, or collecting data about them, but should clearly articulate how data can be used, or how third parties access that data, and how people can opt out or limit how much of their data is collected. Data ownership means that a community owns the data it generates as well as the learning algorithms and other data project derivatives.


Businesses that are taking a big step forward when it comes to data collection should not wait for European legislation that is still in the making. Assange and Snowden have strongly fueled citizens’ awareness, but also their fear of data collection. Google, Microsoft and Facebook have suffered significant losses from Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s data collection.

Companies that underestimate the importance of ethics in their projects may face serious legal restrictions or the aversion of the general public in the future. In view of the increasing social awareness of citizens, business cannot take a wait-and-see approach.


Big Data, Communities and Ethical Resilience: A Framework for Action By 2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows Kate Crawford, Gustavo Faleiros, Amy Luers, Patrick Meier, Claudia Perlich and Jer Thorp. Draft Date: Oct. 24, 2013
Monroy-Hernandez, A., E. Kiciman, D. Boyd, and S. Counts. 2012. Tweeting the Drug War: Empowerment, Intimidation, and Regulation in Social Media. HCIC. [online] URL:
Robertson, J. 2013. How big data Could Help Identify the Next Felon – Or Blame the Wrong Guy. [online] URL:
For example, see Solove, D. 2011 Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security. New Haven: Yale University Press.
For example, see the Fair Information Practice Principles:
Crawford, K., and J. Schultz. 2013. big data and Due Process: Towards a Framework to Redress Predictive Privacy Harms. Boston College Law Review. 55(1). [online] URL: