Big Data Ethics

40 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2014 Last revised: 3 Jun 2014

Neil M. Richards

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law; Yale Information Society Project; Stanford Center for Internet and Society

Jonathan H. King

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: May 19, 2014

Abstract

We are on the cusp of a “Big Data” Revolution, in which increasingly large datasets are mined for important predictions and often surprising insights. The predictions and decisions this revolution will enable will transform our society in ways comparable to the Industrial Revolution. We are now at a critical moment; big data uses today will be sticky and will settle both default norms and public notions of what is “no big deal” regarding big data predictions for years to come.

In this paper, we argue that big data, broadly defined, is producing increased powers of institutional awareness and power that require the development of a Big Data Ethics. We are building a new digital society, and the values we build or fail to build into our new digital structures will define us. Critically, if we fail to balance the human values that we care about, like privacy, confidentiality, transparency, identity and free choice with the compelling uses of big data, our Big Data Society risks abandoning these values for the sake of innovation and expediency.

In Part I, we trace the origins and rapid growth of the Information Revolution. In Part II, we call for the development of a “Big Data Ethics,” a set of four related principles that should govern data flows in our information society, and inform the establishment of big data norms. First, we must recognize “privacy” as an inevitable system of information rules rather than merely secrecy. Second, we must recognize that shared private information can remain “confidential.” Third, we must recognize that big data requires transparency. Fourth, we must recognize that big data can compromise identity. In Part III, we suggest how we might integrate big data ethics into our society. Law will be an important part of Big Data Ethics, but so too must the establishment of ethical principles and best practices that guide government, corporations, and users. We must all be part of the conversation, and part of the solution. Big Data Ethics are for everyone.

Suggested Citation

Richards, Neil M. and King, Jonathan H., Big Data Ethics (May 19, 2014). Wake Forest Law Review, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2384174

Neil M. Richards (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

Yale Information Society Project ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Stanford Center for Internet and Society ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

Jonathan H. King

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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