Big Brother, Big Data and Ethics

Giovanni Buttarelli

Privacy is dead they say.

But of course it isn’t. It is well and truly alive. Regardless of how much we share on social media, in reality we are still selective about what we do share. Even online, we find ways to secure, conceal or protect ourselves whether through ad blockers, security settings, the dark web or other ways. That is privacy.

While technology and the internet influences the way we behave, there is no evidence it has diminished our values as a society. So much so, that the EU continues to uphold our fundamental rights to privacy and data protection.

As technologies and personal data become ever more intertwined, the need for an ethical reflection on our fundamental rights, technology, markets and business models is long overdue.

So I'm proud that we're initiating a worldwide debate on how to ensure the integrity of our values while embracing the benefits of new technologies.

As part of this flagship project of my independent organisation's third mandate, the Ethics Advisory Group (EAG) was launched in January 2016. With the help of this group, we intend to identify a new ethical approach in the coming years so that individuals are no longer reduced to mere data subjects in the digital environment.

At the time of publishing this blogpost, the first EDPS- EAG workshop is underway.  Experts from the data protection community are gathered together with the distinguished members of the EAG and other eminent ethics experts to explore the main concerns of the wider data protection community. The discussions today will form valuable input for the continued work of the Group.

I am honoured that so many respected people were eager to take part in today's workshop. Our venerated moderator for the day is my predecessor as European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx. 

Leading the breakout discussion sessions are four honourable members of the EAG, Peter Burgess, Luciano Floridi, Aurélie Pols and Jeroen van den Hoven. They will invite participants to examine four areas in which the rapidly changing digital landscape requires new thinking on ethics and data protection. The two other members of the Group, Antoinette Rouvroy and Jaron Lanier will also play an active role in the debates.

1) What is digital ethics?

George Orwell warned against big brother. He didn’t realise at the time that we'd also need to pay attention to big data.

The internet has evolved such that the tracking of people’s behaviour has become routine for many intelligence agencies, not to mention an essential revenue stream for some of the most successful companies. I've said it before but it's worth emphasising: we are each more than the sum of our data and yet we are more defined by our quantified selves than ever.

Algorithms based on the data collected about us are not objective, they reflect choices about what, how and who is doing the measuring. The same can be said of their interpretation. Sometimes, decisions by state authorities or private companies are made on the basis only of what can be measured. But humans are unpredictable; we cannot be assessed by algorithm alone.  Should the efficiency that is associated with technology override fairness, dignity and the common good?  Should algorithms be subject to ethical critique?  These are, obviously, rhetorical questions, but I hope that our project will guide us in dealing in practice with the ethical consequences of technology.

2) Human dignity in the digital age

Human dignity is the cornerstone of fundamental rights. We value privacy not to hide something but because the control of our personal information is central to our sense of self.

But in a society characterised by massive data sharing, do we need to revise our notions of human dignity, privacy and personal data?

While we accept that technology transforms the norms of human behaviour, it also blurs our ability to give free and sometimes, informed consent.  How do we reconcile this?

Can we introduce moral responsibility in the vacuum created between people and automated processes such as surveillance or data collection?

3) Technology as a driver and an actor

In our technology-driven society, it is easy to get excited by the frequent novelties introduced on the digital market. But should ethical considerations determine the direction of innovation?  Should human values play a part in the development of new technologies?  Remembering the human element in innovation was certainly the message of Stephen Hawking and the Future of Life Institute in their powerful letter of January 2015.  We ignore these luminaries at our peril.

4) Ethics and the law

In Europe, privacy and data protection are separate rights sanctioned by the law.
But is it enough that a practice affecting our privacy, our personal data or both is legal?  What if the law was to be the minimum standard?  The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduces the concept of accountability in EU law so to what extent should ethics play a part in this concept?

Big data is one example of how personal data is driving technologies and practices in the public and private sectors. These technologies raise profound questions not only about human rights but also about what it is to be human.

In its fourth recital the GDPR states, 'Data processing should be designed to serve mankind'. This, I argue, is an ethical sentiment to be shared around the world. With today's workshop we have begun the dissemination.

Agenda for the first EDPS-EAG Workshop.
A report from today’s meeting will be prepared and made public in due course. A second EDPS-EAG workshop with experts from the research community is in the planning.