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Peter Mouncey Blog

Needing to know what you don’t know: The ethical dilemma of ‘big data’

31-07-2013

When you read the latest issue of IJMR (55/4), as I’m sure you will, you’ll find three items of content that explore the extent to which ethical boundaries are being re-drawn as a result of the revolution in personal data collection facilitated by developments in technology.

In my Editorial, I discuss the downloads of passive data from mobile technology. Daniel Nunan & Maria Laura Di Domenico in their paper focus on the ethical implications for market research of the ‘big data’ revolution.

Finally, there’s my review of Andrew Keen’s fascinating book, ‘Digital Vertigo’, who takes a very philosophical view on ethics and social media, calling up the great names in 19th century thinking, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to provide contrasting perspectives on this theme.

In all three items, the two underlying issues are the same – how far can people be persuaded to share their behaviour, opinions and personal details with the rest of the world; and where should those collecting and using this data draw the line in accessing and using the data?

Keen argues that the technology providers follow the Benthamite argument, and that sharing is a force for good in society. In this world, anonymity is the enemy of progress. Those processing the increasingly vast volume of data available from the rising tide of mobile devices argue they have gained permission to collect the data, in the context that has underpinned much of the ethical development of market research - the identities of the providers will remain anonymous.

But is this a promise we can confidently trust when the data-miners and their algorithms get to work on the data?

Nunan & Di Domenico get to the heart of the issue by posing the question: ‘How can consumers trust an organisation with information where the organisation does not yet know how the information might be used in the future?’

As I’ve said before, this was raised in the very early days of database marketing - consent was obtained to use data for marketing purposes. But did consumers even then have any real conception of what was by then already becoming possible in stitching data together - or using analytics to identify patterns in data - that could then be readily exploited in ways that consumers could never imagine?

Nunan & Di Domenico go back even further, quoting Warren & Brandeis in 1890: ‘what is whispered today in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops’, referring to the rising use of photographs in newspapers.

Today, the situation is of course infinitely more complex, and becoming more so all the time. And as Ipsos discovered, ‘big data’ collected for one purpose leads others to dream up applications in a completely different context.

This was quickly recognised after the birth of geodemographics – a process with lots of potential applications, as discussed in the Chorley report ‘Handling geographic information’ published in 1987, offering a portent of what technology was starting to deliver, and a foretaste of where are today.

So, what exactly are consumers giving their consent to, and can this consent be truly described as ‘informed’?

And, we know that the memory capabilities of the internet is infinite – there is still at present no right to be forgotten, and if and when this ever happens, how retrospective can it be; how long will it stretch into the future?


Nunan & Di Demenico also touch on the other trend in data collection – human intervention is no longer the facilitator; it is done autonomously. The mobile device, for example, in effect becomes an always-on beacon, constantly transmitting a stream of data to the collector.

There is no human filter at the collection stage, and maybe there never is as the data travels through an automated analytical process to finally re-emerge as the source for a customised offer or advertisement, or some other application that triggers an alarm – whatever the system is programmed to flag and respond to.

The outcome might be as unexpected to a researcher as to the recipient.

Keen and Nunan/Di Demenico are aligned on the need to remind us, as citizens, consumers or researchers, of the need to engage with and debate the ethical challenges presented by those pushing us to reveal all. Is the promise of anonymity sufficient; can we truly believe in the concept of ‘informed’ consent when we don’t know what we don’t know?

As ever, I welcome your thoughts - these are issues that need to be discussed - so please comment below.

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