7Data Responsibility: A Word on Data Ethics

“Do well by doing good.”

—Benjamin Franklin

I used to tell a story to people who did not understand my work in the field of data and found the terminology and concepts to be mystifying. I explained how my wife, who was in the medical profession (with its own mystifying terminology), would say to her colleagues, “I don't understand what he does. I think he must work for the CIA!” Later, after it was revealed that government agencies like the NSA were maintaining data on private citizens, she updated her response to say that she was now convinced that I worked for the NSA. I retold this story to an executive about a year ago when he looked up at me and deadpanned, “And it turns out that all that time you were working for Facebook!”

In a May 2015 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Tracing Some of Big Data's Big Paradoxes,”1 I quoted Washington University in St. Louis law professor Neil M. Richards in summing up the opportunities and challenges represented by Big Data. His quote serves as an appropriate metaphor for the opportunities, challenges, and ethical considerations that companies encounter in managing and using data within their organizations. Richards commented at that time, “Big Data will create winners and losers, and it is likely to benefit the institutions who wield its tools over the individuals being mined, analyzed, and sorted.”

In retrospect, Richards' foresight was prophetic, or at least clear-sighted, about the ...

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