Skip links

Data ethics is a game of interests

The field of data ethics has become a campsite for different interests. Private companies and public institutions. Let’s choose a data ethics that takes point of departure in the interests of people.

Data ethics is fashionable. So ultramodern that Gartner recently pointed to digital ethics and privacy as one of 2019’s most important strategic business trends. Not only companies, but also governments around the world and public institutions have discovered the term data ethics and launch one ethics initiative after another.

Indeed, today one cannot avoid considering the ethical implications of the big data era. Ambivalent computer technologies that push ethics into the forefront are part of everyday life now. Data on school children collected and analyzed to support their well-being can also be used to control them and their families. Software that analyzes data on defendants can help a judge in making a decision, but ultimately also decide who stays or goes to prison and who goes free. Health technologies can analyze our health data and help us to healthier lives while at the same time predicting the date and cause of our death.

With all the ethical dilemmas that our technological development pose, it is good to see that both private and public actors have begun to reflect on their use of data. It is important that we consider the role that data technologies should play for us as people and society. That we find a balance between joining the latest digitization trend while holding on to human values such as privacy and dignity, and not least democratic values of society for the equal distribution of knowledge and information.

However, we must think about how we use ethics. Everyone currently has an opinion about ethics and technology. In the artificial intelligence area, there are apparently 47 different ethical principles. Thus, it gets more and more difficult to distinguish the interests in all the positive words on ethics. But it’s important that we do so and that we are aware of how data ethics can be used in different ways – to promote human interests and to do the opposite.

Data ethics is important, but not at all costs.

Whose data ethics, whose interests?

Here the other day, the Chinese AI tech giant Baidu announced, for example, that they had joined the initiative Partnership on AI. This initiative Facebook and Google are also members of. The question is which data ethics they can agree on in this group?

Thinking of all the data that artificially intelligent technologies need, for example, the right to privacy could be a good starting point. And then again, perhaps not. As Baidu’s CEO Robin Lee said as late as March 2018: “I think Chinese people are more open, or are not that sensitive about privacy. If they are able to exchange privacy for safety, convenience, or efficiency, in many cases they are willing to do that. Then we can make more use of that data”.

And what about freedom of expression, which is an essential fundamental value in any democratic society? Facebook has just announced that they have added 24 new languages to their global artificial intelligent language processing tool. It performs 6 million translations every day under the slogan “No language left behind” with different purposes – one of them, for example, to help find policy-violating content.

Doesn’t sound very “ethical”, one thinks. But then again we must recognize that this is someone’s idea, or at least someone’s use of the term data ethics. Maybe just not yours and mine. This is precisely the core of the global struggle for data ethics that we are currently experiencing. It serves particular interests and purposes, it prioritizes risks, it distributes roles and responsibilities.

It is therefore pivotal that there is transparency in the values and interests that form our data ethics. Data ethics is a value choice and we must decide what it is supposed to support. Does it support a company’s profit or a public institution’s digitization and efficiency goal? It does not have to. In the end, data ethics is not about the interests of a company or state. It’s about people.