Blog. The word trust is often used in discussions about data ethics. But what is the relation between trust and ethics? Which values are inviolable and worth fighting for? In ethics and moral theory it is common to distinguish between two different types of value: Intrinsic and instrumental value.
Money does not have value in itself. Coins, banknotes, and bank transfers only get their value when traded for something we strive to own, and in this sense money is an instrument for something else. Thus money has an instrumental value.
Another example of instrumental value is grocery shopping on a Monday evening after work. We often go to the supermarket to buy groceries for dinner and not just for the sake of a trip to the supermarket. When we eat dinner with friends and family, then we can talk about something other than instrumental value. Because friendship is an example of something of intrinsic value. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle friendship has value in itself, and is not merely a means to obtain something else.
And what about trust? Does trust have value in itself independent of anything else?
Data has instrumental value
When politicians and public institutions (and data-driven businesses) talk about the importance of citizens trusting the system, it is often followed by arguments and reasons like ”because then they deliver good data”
Compare this with being in a relationship: Is trust important such that you can ”take advantage of” your partner – or is trust important without any further practical reason?
The analogy with relationships is unfortunately not spot on, because if you are in a relationship, a friendship or maybe in a working context where your trust is been taking advantage of – by being involuntarily instrumental – then you have the opportunity to leave your partner, your ”friend”, or your employer. But this is not the case in your relation to the state.
By far most of the data collected by the state of Denmark is done without consent from the citizen. Furthermore, often transfer of data happens from primary to secondary usage scenarios, and with unintelligible linking of registers where citizens are deprived of the opportunity to protect their privacy.
Whether it is my DNA for the National Genome Center, logging of my phone, my health data, my grades, my travels, or my innermost thoughts, it is all data which can be transformed into a value in terms of knowledge, research, control, and competitive advantage. Thus data is a matter of instrumental value.
But if citizens don’t trust that the public sector takes care of their data in line with the citizens’ interests, it could result in more people not wanting to share data or share correct and accurate data. This happens already, when parents in Denmark tell their children not to participate in various welfare surveys in school and in some extreme consequences citizens ”afraid” to seek advice from their GP.
And with this rhetoric about trust in the system, a picture is painted where this is exactly what the public sector is fearing: That we as citizens deliver bad data! And thus not the waning of trust as an intrinsic value.
The private vs. the public sector
It is not only the public sector which fears misleading data as a consequence of the breach of trust. Also data-driven companies like, among others, Facebook, various insurance companies and advertising agencies who use trust as an opportunity for ”up-data” – and thus up selling. Facebook is telling its users that it takes the privacy of the users seriously and gives us a guided tour within its newest privacy settings.
Our willingness to share data with private companies are also being used in the trust rhetoric of the public sector – because the public sector are doing it for the sake of the citizens… Søren Pind (at that time Danish minister of education and research) stated earlier this year at the conference Offentlig Digitalisering (a Danish conference about nationwide public digitalization) that ”Nevertheless, people are obviously willing to share their data with private companies. But as soon as it comes to democratically elected, legitimate organizations, people are flipping out. And I here I must say that this is something we need to discuss.”
Yes, I do indeed think this is something we need to discuss.
Although the problems about private companies’ predatory hunt for data are gaining greater public attention, the argument that we gladly share data with the private sector cannot be used as an argument that we should be just as likely to share data with the public sector.
Furthermore there is a fundamental difference between being a customer at a company and citizen in a state. Because (in the ideal world) I can choose to decline the companies terms and conditions and get the relevant services delivered from elsewhere, but I do not have the opportunity to evade the public sector’s data collection when I want to go to the doctor, to school, or within regards to other citizen services. The example given by Søren Pind raises the question: Does the state deserve the trust of their citizens, or should the state trust its citizens to manage their own data?
There is no easy and strict division between instrumental and intrinsic values. Friendship can be a means for other good things, while trust might make grounds for a healthy relationship. I would, however, like to encourage reflections on whether the rhetoric about trust towards the public sector are reducing trust to something exclusively instrumental. Because, is it then trust at all?