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Ethical Issues in the Online World

Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.

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  •  “Practically as an accident”: on “social facts” and the common good

    Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

     

    In the Los Angeles Review of Books, philosopher Evan Selinger takes issue with many of the conclusions (and built-in assumptions) compiled in Dataclysm—a new book by Christian Rudder, who co-founded the dating site OKCupid and now heads the site’s data analytics team. While Selinger’s whole essay is really interesting, I was particularly struck by his comments on big data and privacy. 

    “My biggest issue with Dataclysm,” Selinger writes,
     
    lies with Rudder’s treatment of surveillance. Early on in the book he writes: ‘If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: the human story.’ This claim about pursuing a third path isn’t true. Dataclysm itself is a work of social surveillance.
     
    It’s tempting to think that different types of surveillance can be distinguished from one another in neat and clear ways. If this were the case, we could say that government surveillance only occurs when organizations like the National Security Agency do their job; corporate surveillance is only conducted by companies like Facebook who want to know what we’re doing so that they effectively monetize our data and devise strategies to make us more deeply engaged with their platform; and social surveillance only takes place in peer-to-peer situations, like parents monitoring their children’s phones, romantic partners scrutinizing each other’s social media feeds….
     
    But in reality, surveillance is defined by fluid categories.
     
    While each category of surveillance might include both ethical and unethical practices, the point is that the boundaries separating the categories are porous, and the harms associated with surveillance might seep across all of them.
     
    Increasingly, when corporations like OKCupid or Facebook analyze their users’ data and communications in order to uncover “social facts,” they claim to be acting in the interest of the common good, rather than pursuing self-serving goals. They claim to give us clear windows into our society. The subtitle of Rudder’s book, for example, is “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).” As Selinger notes,
     
    Rudder portrays the volume of information… as a gift that can reveal the truth of who we really are. … [W]hen people don’t realize they’re lab rats in Rudder’s social experiments, they reveal habits—‘universals,’ he even alleges…  ‘Practically as an accident,’ Rudder claims, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we’re changing.’
     
    Of course, Rudder should contain his claims to the “we” who use OKCupid (a 2013 study by the Pew Research Trust found that 10% of Americans report having used an online dating service). Facebook has a stronger claim to having a user base that reflects all of “us.”  But there are other entities that sit on even vaster data troves than Facebook’s, even more representative of U.S. society overall. What if a governmental organization were to decide to pursue the same selfless goals, after carefully ensuring that the data involved would be carefully anonymized and presented only in the aggregate (akin to what Rudder claims to have done)?
     
    In the interest of better “social facts,” of greater insight into our collective mindsets and behaviors, should we encourage (or indeed demand from) the NSA to publish “Who Americans Are (Whey They Think No One’s Watching)”? To be followed, perhaps, by a series of “Who [Insert Various Other Nationalities] Are (When They Think No One’s Watching)”? Think of all the social insights and common good that would come from that!
     
    In all seriousness, as Selinger rightly points out, the surveillance behind such no-notice-no-consent research comes at great cost to society:
     
    Rudder’s violation of the initial contextual integrity [underpinning the collection of OKCupid user data] puts personal data to questionable secondary, social use. The use is questionable because privacy isn’t only about protecting personal information. People also have privacy interests in being able to communicate with others without feeling anxious about being excessively monitored. … [T]he resulting apprehension inhibits speech, stunts personal growth, and possibly even disinclines people from experimenting with politically relevant ideas.
     
    With every book subtitled “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking),” we, the real we, become more weary, more likely to assume that someone’s always looking. And as many members of societies that have lived with excessive surveillance have attested, that’s not a path to achieving the good life.
     
    Photo by Henning Muhlinghaus, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

     

  •  Who (or What) Is Reading Whom: An Ongoing Metamorphosis

    Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014
     
    If you haven’t already read the Wall Street Journal article titled “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” published in 2012, it’s well worth your time. It might even be worth a second read, since our understanding of many Internet-related issues has changed substantially since 2012.
     
    I linked to that article in a short piece that I wrote, which was published yesterday in Re/Code: “Metamorphosis.”  I hope you’ll read that, too—and we’d love to get your comments on that story either at Re/Code or in the Comments section here!
     
    And finally, just a few days ago, a new paper by Jules Polonetsky and Omer Tene (both from the Future of Privacy Forum) was released through SSRN: “Who Is Reading Whom Now: Privacy in Education from Books to MOOCs.” This is no bite-sized exploration, but an extensive overview of the promises and challenges of technology-driven innovations in education—including the ethical implications of the uses of both “small data” and “big data” in this particular context.
     
    To play with yet another title—there are significant and ongoing shifts in “the way we read now”…
     

    Photo by Jose Antonio Alonso, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  Questions about Mass Surveillance

    Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014


    Last week, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, long-time member of the Select Committee on Intelligence and current chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, held a roundtable on the impact of governmental surveillance on the U.S. digital economy.  (You can watch a video of the entire roundtable discussion here.) While he made the case that the current surveillance practices have hampered both our security and our economy, the event focused primarily on the implications of mass surveillance for U.S. business—corporations, entrepreneurs, tech employees, etc.  Speaking at a high-school in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by the Executive Chairman of Google, the General Counsels of Microsoft and Facebook, and others, Wyden argued that the current policies around surveillance were harming one of the most promising sectors of the U.S. economy—and that Congress was largely ignoring that issue. “When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington [usually] gets up at arms,” Wyden noted, but “no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the US economy.”

    The focus on the economic impact was clearly intended to present the issue of mass surveillance through a new lens—one that might engage those lawmakers and citizens who had not been moved, perhaps, by civil liberties arguments.  However, even in this context, the discussion frequently turned to the “personal” implications of the policies involved.  And in comments both during and after the panel discussion, Wyden expressed his deep concern about the particular danger posed by the creation and implementation of “secret law.”  Microsoft’s General Counsel, Brad Smith, went one step further:  “We need to recognize,” he said, “that laws that the rest of the world does not respect will ultimately undermine the fundamental ability of our own legal processes, law enforcement agencies, and even the intelligence community itself.”

    That brought me back to some of the questions I raised in 2013 (a few months after the Snowden revelations first became public), in an article published by the Santa Clara Magazine.  One of the things I had asked was whether the newly-revealed surveillance programs might “change the perception of the United States to the point where they hamper, more than they help, our national security. “ In regard to secret laws, even if those were to be subject to effective Congressional and court oversight, I wondered, "[i]s there a level of transparency that U.S. citizens need from each branch of the government even if those branches are transparent to one another? In a democracy, can the system of checks and balances function with informed representatives but without an informed public? Would such an environment undermine voters’ ability to choose [whom to vote for]?"

    And, even more broadly, in regard to the dangers inherent in indiscriminate mass surveillance, "[i]n a society in which the government collects the metadata (and possibly much of the content) of every person’s communications for future analysis, will people still speak, read, research, and act freely? Do we have examples of countries in which mass surveillance coexisted with democratic governance?"

    We know that a certain level of mass surveillance and democratic governance did coexist for a time, very uneasily, in our own past, during the Hoover era at the FBI—and the revelations of the realities of that coexistence led to the Church committee and to policy changes.

    Will the focus on the economic impact of current mass governmental surveillance lead to new changes in our surveillance laws? Perhaps.  But it was Facebook’s general counsel who had (to my mind) the best line of last week’s roundtable event. When a high-school student in the audience asked the panel how digital surveillance affects young people like him, who want to build new technology companies or join growing ones, one panelist advised him to just worry about creating great products, and to let people like the GCs worry about the broader issues.  Another panelist told him that he should care about this issue because of the impact that data localization efforts would have on future entrepreneurs’ ability to create great companies. Then, Facebook’s Colin Stretch answered. “I would say care about it for the reasons you learned in your Civics class,” he said, “not necessarily the reasons you learned in your computer science class.”

    Illustration by Stuart Bradford

  •  Mobile Technology and Social Media: Ethical Implications

    Sunday, May. 12, 2013

    The adoption of mobile devices and the use of social media are both growing quickly around the world.  In emerging markets in particular, mobile devices have become “life tools”—used for telemedicine, banking, education, communication, and more.  These developments give rise to new ethical challenges.  How should the mobile be used for data collection among vulnerable populations?  Can apps that bring great benefits also cause unintended harm?  And who should address these concerns?  In this brief video, tech entrepreneur and professor Radha Basu argues that the debate should include the manufacturers of mobile devices and the app developers, but also the young people who will be most affected by these new developments.