The ethics of data: Don’t blow the innovation opportunity

Failure to treat people’s data with respect will erode trust and lead to a backlash that will kill opportunity

We all think we know right from wrong but, let’s face it, both have a fair bit of flexibility. Often, though, doing the right thing isn’t just a moral or ethical decision, it’s a question of success or failure. That will be the case when it comes to the ethics of how our data is gathered, shared and used.

techUK last week hosted a debate called ‘Driving the Data Ethics and Governance Debate Forward’ to explore how this vitally important aspect of the data economy will play out.

The panel comprised Hetan Shah, Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society; Claire Craig, Director of Science Policy ate Royal Society; Professor Luciano Floridi , Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University’s Internet Institute; Antony Walker, Deputy CEO at techUK and Owen Larter, Microsoft’s UK Government Affairs Manager.

What was clear from hearing them speak is that the huge opportunities on offer will face an existential threat unless people are convinced that the use of their data by third parties is good for them and for wider society. Opening the debate, Sue Daley, techUK’s lead on cloud, data, analytics and AI, said: “The technology sector is being looked to for answers on data governance questions. We need to start considering how to respond.”

The Royal Statistical Society’s Hetan Shah drew a parallel with how genetically modified crops were promoted with a fanfare from the science community in the 1990s only to be rejected by the public. Lurid headlines about the threat of ‘Frankenstein foods’ fuelled fears over the environmental and health impacts of the technology, slamming the brakes on plans for wide-scale use of GM crops in the UK. If there were any perceivable upsides to GM, they were outweighed by the sense that the only beneficiaries were the biotech giants making huge profits while gambling with public safety.

The trust deficit

There are clearly lessons to be learned here as personal data becomes an ever more widely-used and valuable resource. The ethical storm clouds have been building for some time, so it’s imperative for everyone from governments to start-ups to head off a backlash.

The ethics in this area, said Shah, are not clear, with definitions of consent and privacy being “stretched”. Research by the Society found that people do not trust organisations with their data as much as they might trust the organisation itself, describing the shortfall as the “data trust deficit”.

“We need standards to allow for innovation,” he said.

Shah wants to see an independent data ethics council to establish a framework for governance. Not another regulator, though — existing enforcers should instead have their powers extended. A data ethics council would make the case for using data in an equitable way, help shape law and evaluate outcomes.

Research by the Royal Society showed that context is of huge importance to people when it comes to the use of their data, as is motivation — why is new technology being introduced and why is data needed?

techUK hosted the data ethics debate

Director Claire Craig said people want such innovation to do good — whether for themselves, people like them or for wider society. She, too, drew a parallel with the rejection of GM crops if corporate profit is perceived to trump public benefit. People are comfortable with companies making money, she said, as long as they understand and accept the context.

The potential for data to solve some of society’s bigger problems, she added, is huge, though, from food supply and population issues to the provision of better healthcare and education.

Health was an area picked up on by techUK’s Antony Walker, who said data could help the NHS strip out inefficiencies and save huge amounts of money. He sad: “It’s our ethical responsibility to future generations if we want them to have a health service that is affordable.”

Owen Larter of Microsoft added that artificial intelligence-driven algorithms are helping US medics detect diagnostic and treatment errors, tackling what is the third leading cause of death in America. He wants to see a society-wide discussion to arrive at a set of principles that will allow data to “transform the economy and our lives”.

Innovation as an imperative

The panel was unanimous in expressing a real sense of urgency over how soon data and its use by AI and machine learning will begin to have significant impact on our lives. They were equally unanimous that innovation was an absolute imperative — the economic and social opportunities are just too great to let slip away. Moves to establish any kind of governance structure to provide an ethical framework will have to be swift.

Personal data is an inexhaustible resource, a golden goose. But unless the people whose data we’re talking about — that’s you and me — benefit from its use, that goose will get well and truly cooked.

Ethical and governance frameworks around how our data is used will help give focus to what is right and wrong and a degree of strength when it comes to keeping everyone in line.

We need regulators and legislation because there will always be bad actors and dubious motives. As Internet of Me has said before, even regulation is an opportunity as long as you approach it from the right direction and are prepared to challenge entrenched attitudes.

But most of all, anyone who sees opportunity that is longer term than a fast buck will surely see that there is far greater success to be had if they treat a person’s data with the same respect as they would the living, breathing person.

The role data plays in our lives will only grow bigger. It will power just about every interaction with the world around us in some way. Who holds and controls that data lies at the heart of the Internet of Me, both as a publication exploring such issues and as a concept for how we might all exist at the centre of our own connected lives.

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