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Who is watching the researchers?

Gawker has an excellent article about “Big Data”. The author of the article is ” Vann R. Newkirk II is a data geek, fiction writer, sc-fi lover and professional curmudgeon.” To understand data collection and researchers who collect data he takes us back to the early 20th century when some very unethical research on humans was undertaken without the knowledge or awareness of the test subjects.

We are in another era of big data collection and statistical collection and manipulation. This data is not unbiased – there are always biases because humans are doing the programming, asking the questions and running the numbers. Funding sources can also bias data collection and the interpretation of the data. In psychology we call this E-bias or Experimenter bias. We were taught about ethical research methods and to always be aware of the sin of E-bias.

Facebook conducted very questionable research on some users of their social media. Some variables of their news feed etc was manipulated to see if this affected user’s emotions. Talk about manipulation and dirty science – this was the prime example of where big data becomes dark matter and science fiction evil.

Some researchers are very ethical and are aware of the dangers when they do not have the informed consent of their research subjects. For the unethical researchers they need supervision.

Big Data needs a Belmont Report. But given the stakes, communities can’t sit idly by this time and document abuses until the disaster has already happened. The Belmont Report and the ethical revolution that followed the Tuskegee Study focused on beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice as four key principles for studying human subjects. While these four don’t quite appropriately address the concerns with Big Data of today, they are a starting point.

Researchers Neil M. Richards and Jonathan H. King at Washington University in St. Louis have identified four additional principles of privacy, confidentiality, transparency, and identity that are useful in creating an ethics structure for using Big Data. According to Richards, the ethical responsibility often extends to the algorithm and outcomes themselves. “We can’t outsource responsibility to an algorithm” Richards said. “We have to have social confidence in the kinds of outcomes it’s going to produce. All decisions to entrust a decision to an algorithm are relying on flawed human decisions and human creations.”

Big Data users should have a burden placed on them not to harm individuals from whom data is gained. They should be held under the threat of criminal charges to absolute privacy and datasets should be limited to truly non-identifiable data unless the subjects explicitly agree otherwise. Privacy statements and consent should be written in 8th-grade language and limited to a few pages. Above all, persons should be respected as persons and not as faceless points of data. According to Richards, all of these solutions “mean that all of us, particularly politicians, policymakers and judges are going to need to get their hands dirty” in the actual meanings and intent of data use.

With the dawn of the age of the Internet and then Social media, big data has become a gold mine for both ethical and the unethical researchers. Obama’s campaign made massive use of big data. Phone numbers and email addresses were linked.

Now I am wondering which commercial firm was in charge of creating this huge database? I read an article about an individual who went to great lengths to keep his personal and professional life separate. Yet he was getting calls (same exact calls) on both his business cell phone and his private cell phone. He was not happy at all. As I remember this person was in a position to know exactly how to isolate his business and private worlds. He was concerned about the way the Obama camp was collecting and sharing data.

Democrat candidates were flocking to support the Obama campaign because of his vast database on voters according to reporters interviews. It takes a lot of effort to amass the much date (never mind the vast number of worker hours) and Obama had this database very early in his campaign. The news story was published in late 2008 or early 2009. If I can find the links to these articles I will post them. At the time when I read these article I was very concerned. Now that we know about the activities of the NSA and commercial data collectors the warning flags of six years ago were mild compared to what is really happening with big data.

Please read the whole article linked because we are all affected by what “researchers” do with big data. 

Additional links and information
Tech dirt dot com has an article – “Data is everywhere let’s use it” with links to the story about Facebook using and misusing data, plus other examples. The free apps aren’t free – puberty get outweigh adds or some of theses apps track your location or track you online activity. Before downloading a new app read the comments. Free is sometimes very expensive. Download anti virus software for android and Apple products. Many of the app security programs will alert you to intrusive unnecessary permissions the app wants to snoop for free.


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