The ethics conversation we’re not having about data

By Kaiser Fung via hbr.org   Article

“In data science, a pattern of scandals has emerged. Volkswagen’s gaming of emissions data is the latest example.

In July, the CEO of Whole Foods Markets issued a mea culpaafter the supermarket was found to have manipulated product data, over-stating the weight of pre-packaged produce and meats. Over the summer, controversy engulfed Ashley Madison, the social network for married people seeking other partners, as hackers managed to extract a huge amount of private data from the company’s servers. General Motors was also revealed to have hidden information about a faulty ignition switch that has been linked to over one hundred deaths.

While top managers take the fall for these scandals, none of the dubious activities could have happened without the active participation of technical teams. Besides engineers, software developers, and product managers, the burgeoning community of data scientists are also complicit in developing the concepts, algorithms, and software to enable the deception.

This story keeps coming back, because the industry treats it as a technological problem requiring a technological solution. Business managers are missing the real issue: the people who collect, store, manage and process our data are not being held to any ethical standards. The emerging data science discipline is expanding so fast that few workers are thinking about the ethical implications of their everyday actions. …

At various companies, I have been a part of these conversations. Business and technical managers debate topics such as product innovation, user experience, resource requirements, competitive strategies, and return on investment. Except in rare cases, the ethics of these decisions are never broached. This neglect is typically due to lack of attention, awareness, or sensitivity. Sometimes, ethical concerns are dismissed in the same broad stroke that many companies dismiss their user-customers: if they don’t like what we are doing, they don’t have to use our service!”

 

 

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