The Ethics of Big Data: Matthew L. Jones

September 6, 2019

“When things become social and granular, it becomes extraordinarily invasive of our privacy.”

Matthew Jones is a historian of science and technology at Columbia University. We examine the moral and ethical elements of big data, the big business of the surveillance of our personal information online, and how we can demand solutions that reflect our collective values.

Fourth Amendment

The Fourth amendment protects people from unlawful searches and seizures. For example, in the 1970s the Supreme Court ruled that you need to have a warrant to listen in to telephone conversations, but not to collect the phone numbers. This is the precedent that allows for big data to collect a vast amount of information about people on the internet. Further, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has determined that the Fourth amendment is a right that if applied to millions of people, instead of just one, does not change the legal analysis.

Data privacy and literacy

The issue with collecting data at scale is that it becomes granular and social. At that point, the data is no longer innocuous but is invasive of privacy. This idea is at odds with our every-day seemingly trivial interactions and our habit of almost blindly agreeing to arcane privacy policies on the internet. We need newer forms of transparency that really tell us how the data is being used and how it affects our online profile, as well as a collective effort to prioritize data and technological literacy. We need to collectively have a conversation about different kinds of analyses that we allow or not allow.

Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is a vision of history in which technology leads the way and pushes a narrative that says the change in technology alters the people’s expectations. It’s also a reminder that decisions are always being made along the way, whether consciously or not, to yield the current system. We now accept the model of advertising services based on the surveillance of users’ everyday interactions, but there were technological developments in the 1990s that would have made cash transactions largely anonymous.

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Matthew L. Jones is the James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University. He studies the history of science and technology, focused on early modern Europe and on recent information technologies.

A Guggenheim Fellow for 2012-13 and a Mellon New Directions fellow for 2012-15, he is writing on book on computing and state surveillance of communications, and is working on Data Mining: The Critique of Artificial Reason, 1963-2005, a historical and ethnographic account of “big data,” its relation to statistics and machine learning, and its growth as a fundamental new form of technical expertise in business and scientific research. He was also a Data & Society Fellow for 2017-2018 and authored numerous other papers.

Follow Matthew Jones on Twitter @nescioquid