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Cristian Palomo-Ramirez
CST 300 Writing Lab
14 October 2018

Big Data and Privacy

The rise of the internet in the early 2000s brought about many benefits to society. All of a

sudden, people could communicate with each other across different parts of the world within

seconds. It has really revolutionized the way information is passed around each day. With these

new technologies enabling us to share instant information came new capabilities for companies

to monitor online user’s behavior and collect data about it. Thus, the big data industry was born.

And with so many aspects of life today having internet involved in some way, these companies

are able to collect huge amounts of data about all different types of things from online users. This

is the reason the big data industry is growing at such a rapid pace. A report by IBM has estimated

that approximately 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day. To put it into perspective,

the industry is projected to be worth around $66.8 million by 2021, according to Information

Age (Rossi). So big data is a big deal, not only because of the huge amount of potential profit for

companies from it, but also because it is something that affects virtually all internet consumers. It

is also not only companies benefitting from this; the U.S. government also relies on much of this

type of data collected for matters such as intel on citizens they can analyze for homeland defense

purposes. Big data coming into the picture means that users of the internet sacrifice valuable

privacies that many Americans believe they should have. Because of this, many questions are

raised today about the ethics of big data companies collecting and selling information and how it

is an infringement on privacy. This issue is a tricky one because there are good argument for

both sides, and this paper will examine both sides and the ethics involved in depth.
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The first important aspect in tackling the ethics of Big Data versus privacy is to be

familiar with the stakeholders, or groups that have something to gain or lose, of each side of the

argument. In this case there are three major stakeholders: companies, the government, and users

of the internet.

As many are aware, what a company values the highest is making money. This is quite

obvious, as why would the company exist otherwise? Because of this, it is in these big

companies’ interests to obtain data collected from internet users in order to maximize profits.

The way data is used by these companies varies from company to company, but there are many

ways it can benefit a company. There are two main ways a company could benefit from data.

The first way is just collecting the data that is valuable to other companies so that they can profit

by selling this desired information to other companies that need it. The other way is to use the

data either collected or purchased from another company so they can analyze things like human

behaviors, patterns, statistics, and many other aspects and then make beneficial future business

decisions based on their analysis of said information. These potential advantages lead these

companies to make a claim of value for this data they are acquiring. According to Ciklum, a few

of the biggest ways that companies are able to analyze data to their advantage are to decrease

expenses, launch new products or services, and increase the efficiency of their current tasks

going forward (2017). These businesses also argue that their use of this data benefits their

customers’ experience, which it sometimes can. That is why companies like these are on the side

of big data, since it means more profit is at stake. They are not really worried about user privacy

as long as they are making more money.


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The next major stakeholder in the issue is the government. The government is also able to

use the data that it collects or buys from other companies, and much like the companies they

have a claim to value for this information. In this case, however, it is not to make money but for

purposes such as homeland defense. Valuable information about people can help with the

government’s intel on matters that could put the U.S. public at risk. Because of this, the

government also has a claim of policy that they need to fulfill, since the government’s

responsibility is to make sure its citizens are safe. A lot of times the government can use this data

to manage information on particular citizens, help defend against terrorism, help shape policy,

and make public services better as well as more accessible, all based on analysis.

The final member of the stakeholders is the average internet-using citizen. With so many

internet users, many Americans fall into this category. For a lot of these internet users, they may

not even be aware that their data is being collected and distributed. To this group, collecting and

selling of this data as an infringement of privacy and violates ethical frameworks. Many also

believe that privacy is a right of the people that should be protected by the government. Not only

does their right to privacy get violated, but many of these users would also argue that they are

put at risk with their information out there as many companies have suffered data leaks in the

past. This makes the user whose data was leaked vulnerable to fraud, identity theft, or other

problems. That is why the stakeholders in this group are advocates for increased regulations to

protect user privacy and limit the amount and type of personal information that gets put out

there.

There are a lot of people opposing big data by saying that it offers no real benefit for

these businesses on top of violating privacy. Big companies and corporations have always put
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value in data analytics, but the rise of big data has revolutionized the way companies are able to

analyze data. Because of this, companies using big data are able to receive benefits that were

previously not possible. For example, a team at the MIT Center for Digital Business found that

the companies that were most data-driven, when compared to their competitors, were on average

5% more productive and 6% more profitable than the others not so focused on data analytics

(McAfee 2012). Since this new data is an asset to many of these companies, it is obvious they

stand for the pro-data side of the argument and would not like to see legislature put in place to

further protect the privacy of everyday internet users more than it already is. The companies and

other organizations that are in favor of big data use the framework of ethical egoism to justify

their position on the issue and use of the data they acquire. Ethical egoism is a framework that

strives to maintain ethical ideals while doing the best to promote one’s own self-interests.

Companies believe that using this data can then lead to them improving as a company and as a

result they would be able to provide a better overall customer experience. It is only natural that

companies will always do what is in their interest to put themselves in the best position possible.

At the same time, with loose regulations on data sharing as well as privacy policy agreements

that users normally don’t read before accepting, these businesses using people’s data justify their

ethics by claiming that they are still abiding by the law.

The government is also benefits from the mass amounts of data that are shared today.

While for some different reasons than business, they still on the pro-data end of the spectrum and

have various departments dedicated to collecting and analyzing data such as the NSA or the CIA.

When examining the ethical framework of the government’s role when it comes to big data, it is

evident that they are taking a ​utilitarian approach. Utilitarian ethical framework was first
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developed by Epicurus of Samos​ ​(Brown University) and the idea that what is ethical is what

produces the most amount of good and least amount of harm. In Utilitarianism, decisions are

made based on the predicted consequences of the action would be. This applies to the

government because their goal in using this data is to produce the most good for its citizen and

ensure their well-being. Whether that data is being used for reasons such as anti-terrorism or the

shaping of policy, the government believes it has the people’s best interest in mind. The

government’s ideals also align with the deontological approach, as this is the duty-based

approach which was developed by Immanuel Kant (Brown University). The government views it

as its duty to protect and provide for its citizens to its best ability, therefore it is acting ethical

when it has its best intentions in mind for the people. According to an article on government big

data applications, “Governments expect big data to enhance their ability to serve their citizens

and address major national challenges involving the economy, health care, job creation, natural

disasters, and terrorism” (Chung, et al 2014).

The last of the stakeholders, the internet users, are the group that advocates for privacy of

personal information. The ethical framework that this group bases their stance on the issue is the

rights approach, which was also originated from Kant ethics (Brown University). This approach

believes that all humans are born with certain rights, and to do what is ethical is to do what

protects these rights. This group claims what these companies are doing is unethical since it

violates this right to privacy, especially when against their will. The argument could even be

made that this is a Constitutional violation. One of the more notable figures that represents this

side of the issue is Edward Snowden, a former NSA employee who infamously leaked

confidential information about a secret government surveillance program in 2013. In the wake of
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this information being brought to light, many concerns about privacy violations were raised. The

fact that the government did not disclose to its citizens that their data was being watched

contributed to widespread distrust of the government as well and gave people even more of a

valid reason to call foul.

When it comes to the debate about privacy versus big data, it is tricky to argue for either

side because both have valid reasonings for the position. On one hand, with so much modern

technology at our disposal as well as how fast data can travel in this day in age, it would be

foolish not to use it. Especially if it can help in our daily lives in some way, and much of the time

it does. Websites such as Amazon use data in order to make their website more user friendly, or

make suggestions about things we may like to purchase. Nowadays, many people rely on digital

maps to give them live updates on traffic. All those services plus many more use big data to

make the user experience better. On top of that they help businesses grow. A survey by TDWI

Research found that 61% of the companies that participated in the survey said that big data

helped them better target marketing opportunities (Russom 2011). Data analyzing has a lot to

offer. But on the other side of that, many citizens rights to privacy are being violated and

companies are not being held accountable. A good example was the recent Facebook data breach

in which the private information of 50 million users was exposed (Granville 2018). Events like

these only make the people more weary about their data being collected and instill distrust in

governments and corporations. At this point, technology has advanced to a level in which it

would be unreasonable to seek full privacy when using the internet. Because of this, the solution

to the existing issue of data versus privacy would have to be one in which both sides

compromise. For this to work, the businesses or government organizations dealing with this data
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need to be more transparent about it with consumers, and they also need to keep good database

security practices to ensure that the people’s private information is safe. If online users want to

keep living in the digital world where everything is fast and convenient thanks to the internet,

they are going to have to accept that some information might have to be out there, and the

likelihood of that negatively affecting them is miniscule. At the same time, online users need to

educate themselves about big data, and how some of their info may be getting collected and the

minor risks they could be taking.

We are living in the information age. With big data analytics being so huge today and

only getting bigger, it looks like it is only going to become more a part of our daily lives. It is

because of this that we need to look ahead and set a blueprint in which data can still be collected

and analyzed in an ethical way. While this means citizens are going to have to accept that some

level of privacy will need to be given up, it is also important to set boundaries for government

and businesses utilizing this data that still preserves certain privacies. Otherwise, down the road

we may find ourselves in a world in which online privacy is non-existent.


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References

Brown University. (n.d.). Retrieved from

https://www.brown.edu/academics/science-and-technology-studies/framework-making-et

hical-decisions

Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A. (2012, October). Big Data: The Management Revolution.

Harvard Business Review.

Craig, T. & Ludloff, M. E. (2011). ​Privacy and big data.​ Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media.

Granville, K. (2018, March 19). Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What you need to know as

fallout widens. Retrieved from

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/facebook-cambridge-analytica-explain

ed.html

Hopkins, Michael S., et al. (2011). Big Data, Analytics and the Path From Insights to Value. ​MIT

Sloan Management Review.


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Ji-Hyong Chung, Gang-Hoon Kim, & Trimi, S.. (2014). Big-Data Applications in the

Government Sector. ​Communications of the ACM,​ ​57(​ 3), 78–85.

https://doi-org.library2.csumb.edu:2248/doi:10.1145/2500873

Pros and Cons of Big Data. (2018, April 04). Retrieved from

https://www.ciklum.com/blog/pros-and-cons-of-big-data/

Rossi, Ben. (2018, 3 July). Big Data vs. Privacy: the Big Balancing Act. ​Information Age

Retrieved from

www.information-age.com/big-data-vs-privacy-big-balancing-act-123461795/​.

Russom, Philip. (2011).​ Big data analytics. ​Renton, WA: TDWI.