Ethics, Data Science & Politics

June 22, 2016 — Leave a comment

Preface:

Governments cannot embrace, much less promote Big Data, Open Data, Analytics, Machine Learning & Ubiquitous Algorithms without protecting the Citizens’ whom they work for. Social Engineering must be by choice, not by default through illiterate political leaders.

Body:

The UK Government as part of its “Digital Economy” initiative has just released with great fanfare the “Data Science Ethical Framework”. Its ministerial champion has characterized it as “harnessing the Progressive power of Data Science while protecting the Public”. It does neither, but clearly illuminates the lengths to which the UK Government (along with others) will go in trying to influence/dictate behavior in areas where they have no literacy at all in respect to understanding the underlying capabilities (Data, Analytics & Algorithms), nor the consequences of the harm (or actual good) that can come if left to their own devices. Not to be left to a footnote however, is the fact that these attempts at behavioral influence do not apply to the Intelligence community or Police services, both of whom want unlimited powers to surveil, gather data on everyone’s daily lives (and perhaps thoughts) and to then use these to ultimately predict behaviors i.e. The Snoopers Charter.

Ever since the notion of Big Data has come onto the scene, many have extolled its virtues in changing the world as we know and understand it. They have hyped with a zeal not previously seen the notions of Data Science, Data Scientists, Algorithms & Machine Learning, etc. Virtually all of them have advocated for its wide-scale use to analyze and predict citizens’ behavior in order to gain deeper insights, without any controls as to “just how creepy” this activity could get in terms of interacting with the public at large. Any attempt to limit the “how and where” Big Data & Analytics should be applied was met by the fury of these same advocates who characterized it as “stifling economic growth and wealth creation”. Not surprisingly, most advocates have been highly influential in getting Governments to go along with their thinking and to take a “hands off” approach. This has not worked out well for consumers who now see their daily lives dissected, analyzed and ultimately manipulated by the algorithms & machine learning associated with the deep behavioral insights now available to almost every organization who invests in Data & Analytics capabilities.

The backlash that now arisen from this lack of control is significant enough that many Governments have created Ethics Councils and other bodies who have gone on to generate reports & recommendations on the issue of  “Ethics in the age of the Algorithm”. Additionally, these same governments (US, UK, EU, etc.) are also major advocates of Digital and have undertaken major Digital Strategy & Transformation efforts within their countries[1]. These efforts have served to further exacerbate the Ethics Problem that we are now experiencing. A common thread found amongst all of this is the seemingly cluelessness that Government Leaders, Ministers & Civil Servants exhibit each and every time they make an address or pronouncement on the topic of Privacy, Ethics, Governance, etc. associated with Big Data, Analytics, Algorithms, Digital, etc.  Clearly, they don’t understand the underpinnings of the issues, nor the reasons why this topic has become so paramount in the public’s mind and their stated demands that it be resolved to their satisfaction.

Data (Big or Small), Analytics (Creepy or Helpful) & Algorithms (Evil or Good) are major influences in how the Digital World around us evolves, much less serves us. Beyond the well-rehearsed platitudes, there needs to be a fundamental mastery of the details associated with these domains by Leaders & Policy Makers who are ultimately accountable for making Citizen’s lives better, much less protecting them from threats. Without strong & competent Leadership, and controls (governance) , these same citizens will be victimized rather than benefited by Data, Analytics, Algorithms & Digital. The requirement for competent leadership is not a political platform for campaigning on, but a focal point for Government action in order to uphold basic human rights, no matter what pace of transformational change the country is experiencing.

An Ethics Framework that relies on self-governance, best efforts and serendipity to insure that consumer Privacy is protected and that Citizens are not victimized by their own data is a recipe for disaster. Government Leaders must commit themselves to leading at all levels and across all domains. They must be literate and competent in the areas that they promote as catalysts for change and not leave Citizens to the vagaries of Data Science, and all that portends to be.

[1] The UK Government has gone so far as to make the “Digital Economy” a centerpiece of the Queens’ Speech in spite of not being able to come up with a companion “Digital Strategy” that was promised quite some time ago.

  • An edited version of this posting appeared in the June 2016 issue of Information Age (UK) (www.information-age.com)

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