Big Data and Ethics

BIG Data and Ethics was held a few weeks ago in the new premises of the DigitYser, downtown Brussels.

It was a great Meetup, with interesting speakers and an interested public 😉 It’s always a pleasure when the public can contribute and presentations raise great discussions, and it is more important here on this gathering on ethics, as people still have to position themselves on the different aspects of this topic.

I was particularly surprised when Michael Ekstrand from Boise State University mentioned a use of the recommendations systems that I hadn’t think of: using it as a tool to tackle the intention behaviour gap: ‘I don’t do what I want to do’ (for example not eating while on a diet). Recommenders can be used to help you change your behaviour, giving you nudges as incentive.

Jochanan Eynikel also mentioned the use of technology as a morality enforcer.

Still, there are possible drawbacks:

Another area that was discussed was the ethical fact that Personalisation has a direct negative impact on Insurance as it goes against Risk mitigation (mutualising it among customers). There are sensible domains where a ‘human’ approach should be taken.
How to ensure ethical and moral concerns are taken into account? One approach is through participatory design, that is a framework to get users voices on the subject during the design phase. MIT is strongly pushing participatory design to tackle many basic dilemmas.

Solving and clarifying our human position on these kind of dilemmas is more than relevant when we are talking here about autonomous technology, that is when technology is teachings itself, as driving cars learning from users.
Can we imagine not having human supervision in all domains? How to introduce Ethics so that the system itself can choose the ‘good’ decision and discard the others?

Pierre-Nicolas Schwab presented us the General Data Protection Regulation as “the only thing that the EC can do to force companies to take data privacy into account: fine them if they don’t”:

At the end of the meeting, this question has been raised: “Do data scientist and programmers need an Hippocratic oath?” Like ACM that has a code of conduct, something like ‘don’t harm with your code’.
What’s your opinion on this?

New year’s resolution: Apply the 8-Day Data Detox Kit

https://theglassroomnyc.org/data-detox/

theglassroomnyc.org/data-detox/

We are approaching the end of the year. For most of us this is the time to Last Year’s introspection and New Year’s big resolutions…(and if you don’t usually do it I recommend it to you: time flies (!) and taking the wheel of your life brings you a lovely sense of realisation 🙂

Have you given a thought about what you accomplished this year? How do that match your good intentions from the previous new year? Yes, I know, that’s a low blow… who can remember that far? And even if you do, we all tend to be so optimistic about our capabilities 😉

But if you don’t remember what you did this year, or what you were doing that didn’t allowed you to reach your goals…well, you can always check the web to remind you about that (or as we say nowadays: just google it!)

There was recently an exhibition in New York City called The glass room: Looking into your online life about our online data imprinting and the many tools that track our online behavior.

After checking it, you will be more convinced than ever to begin 2017 with the proposed Data Detox Plan.

So here I am proposing you to put, next to your diet to recover after the gastronomic excesses of New Year’s Eve, the 8-Day Data Detox Plan.  It will help you see how you look like to others online, and adjust the level of traces you leave behind, taking back control of your public image, of your ‘persona’.

Happy New Year 2017!  let me pass along a great message from my friend Marie-Noëlle (do I have to mention that she has a communication agency? ;-): ‘Welcome the 365 new opportunities to convert your goals into success

Pre-Crime unit for tracking Terrorists?

minority-report-11-3Due to last events in Belgium, the terrorist bomb attacks in Zaventem and Brussels, I couldn’t but remember the article from Bloomberg Businessweek talking about pre-crime: ‘China Tries Its Hand at Pre-Crime’.  They refer us to the film Minority Report, with Tom Cruise, that takes place in a future society where three mutants foresee all crime before it occurs. Plugged into a great machine, these “precogs” are at the base of a police unit (Pre-Crime unit) that arrests murderers before they commit their crimes.

China Electronics Technology company won recently the contract for constructing the ‘United information environment’ as they call it, an ‘antiterrorism’ platform as declared by the Chinese government:

The Communist Party has directed [them] to develop software to collate data on jobs, hobbies, consumption habits, and other behavior of ordinary citizens to predict terrorist acts before they occur.

This may seem a little too much to ask, if you think about it you may need every daily detail to be able to predict terrorist behaviour, but in a country like China where the state has control over their citizens since many decades, where they have no privacy limits to respect and a good network of informants…

A draft cybersecurity law unveiled in July grants the government almost unbridled access to user data in the name of national security. “If neither legal restrictions nor unfettered political debate about Big Brother surveillance is a factor for a regime, then there are many different sorts of data that could be collated and cross-referenced to help identify possible terrorists or subversives,” says Paul Pillar, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

See how now there is also a new target: subversives.  the article continues:

China was a surveillance state long before Edward Snowden clued Americans in to the extent of domestic spying. Since the Mao era, the government has kept a secret file, called a dang’an, on almost everyone. Dang’an contain school reports, health records, work permits, personality assessments, and other information that might be considered confidential and private in other countries. The contents of the dang’an can determine whether a citizen is eligible for a promotion or can secure a coveted urban residency permit. The government revealed last year that it was also building a nationwide database that would score citizens on their trustworthiness.

Wait a second, who’s defining what is ‘trustworthiness’, and what if you’re not?

New antiterror laws that went into effect on Jan. 1 allow authorities to gain access to bank accounts, telecommunications, and a national network of surveillance cameras called Skynet. Companies including Baidu, China’s leading search engine; Tencent, operator of the popular social messaging app WeChat; and Sina, which controls the Weibo microblogging site, already cooperate with official requests for information, according to a report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service. A Baidu spokesman says the company wasn’t involved in the new antiterror initiative.

So Skynet is here now (remember Terminator Genisys?). Even if right after a horrendous crime you can be tempted to be happy that this ‘pre-crime’ initiative is being constructed, there are way too many negative aspects still to consider before having such a tool. Like in which hands will it be, who’s defining what is a crime, what about your free will of changing your mind, to mention some.  Let’s begin thinking how to tackle them.

Free Search Engines, says the EU!

The European Parliament is asking to “unbundling search engines from other commercial services”, issuing a message as in the ‘Free Willy’ movie, or any other cause you may be for 🙂

Free_willyThe Economist has done its first page article around it: ‘Should governments break up digital monopolies?’, Nov. 29th. 2014.  Is this issue so important?  Yes, I believe so.  The Economist’ writer dismiss this issue arguing that lately any dominant company has not kept its position for too long.  He mentions on this particular issue that technology is shifting again, and browsing is not as relevant as it was, as everybody is going mobile and using more apps than browsing than before. He also says the main interest of the EU for him is more to protect the European companies than for the benefit of the consumer, because the consumer is offered a better service with the attachment of additional functionnalities to the result of searches.

Giving people flight details, dictionary definitions or a map right away saves them time. And while advertisers often pay hefty rates for clicks, users get Google’s service for nothing—rather as plumbers and florists fork out to be listed in Yellow Pages which are given to readers gratis, and nightclubs charge men steep entry prices but let women in free.

Even though as consumers we may be happy having those additional features, I don’t fully agree:  I still believe it is very important to ensure a correct result to a search or as much as it can be, at least not too obviously biased.  And for sure I don’t want to leave in the hands of a few (managers of Google for instance) to decide what is shown to the majority of us as a result of a search, how to prone between the choices, how to direct our attention to only their friend’s interests (on products or on views).

On the other hand, we may have a bigger impact on educating the user: what is he receiving from a search result may be biased because of the business model or the intertwined interests of the search engine providing the answers. Because technology is moving very fast, for when a resolution of this type is issued, the manipulative aspect of marketing may have moved to another place.

For the other aspect, the collection of all the user’s data and its privacy, the issue is becoming urgent, the whole world would benefit from a just and feasable way to deal with it:

The good reason for worrying about the internet giants is privacy. It is right to limit the ability of Google and Facebook to use personal data: their services should, for instance, come with default settings guarding privacy, so companies gathering personal information have to ask consumers to opt in. Europe’s politicians have shown more interest in this than American ones.

About Internet of Things and Privacy

InternetofThings

Innovation is creating new materials, new sensors each time smaller, cheaper, more flexible, more powerful and at the same time less power-consuming. It allows to put them everywhere: we are surrounded with devices crowded with those sensors as our phones with cameras, gyroscopes and gps. And all those measurements captured by the sensors are being used by applications, many of which are connected to the cloud and to Internet.

Internet of Things (as this technology is called) is becoming ubiquitous, leaving us each time more exposed on our daily life.  How many of us have our whereabouts known by the GPS company, the Phone provider and even the car manufacturer?  Also our personal biometrical information is being left all over our running paths not to mention the new gym-centers.

On the other hand, Nicole Dewandre reminds us on this recorded presentation of two basic human needs: our human need of privacy and the fact that we construct ourselves through the public eye.

We need privacy to express our internal thoughts without public judgement, we need to be in a safe place to test and confront to others our lines of reasoning.  On our hyper-connected world, the spaces where we can profit from this privacy are vanishing.

As for our second need, the image the others have of us is very important. The information we leave behind influences this public image and it has a great effect not only on what others think of us, but also on our own perception of ourselves, on our self-esteem and finally it ends reflecting on our happiness.

Living on this hyper-connected world in which we are immersed is a real challenge!

A philosophical view on hyperconnectivity

Last week I had the pleasure to hear Nicole Dewandre talk about Hyperconnectivity at the Rotary club of Waterloo.  Nicole works as advisor for societal issues for the Director General of the DG CONNECT at the European Commission.

NicoleDawandreSlide

Her presentation was about the impact hyperconnectivity has on our human condition from a philosophical point of view. I was very interested in hearing her view on the impacts of the new information technologies.

She first described the characteristics of our human psychology, I picked some nuggets like ‘On passe sa vie derrière son visage’, meaning that we have only our inside view point, we don’t know  how we look like from outside, to the others. This is why we need the other’s reflection to complete our identity.  Before the hyper-connectivity era, we could choose the limit of exposure of our inner-world, we could say or not where we had been, what we did, what we thought depending on the context :  is the person we are talking to a friend or a working colleague?

With all the electronic traces and information we leave behind, the online and offline distinction is blurring, that’s why they came up with the term ‘OnLife’ :-).  And with the existing Big Data techniques we are revealing so much more about ourselves, that the needs of opacity each person has  is being challenged.

The Onlife manifesto proposes to create a new digital literacy:  as language is not only being able to put words on a sentence,  but consists also of  a code of conduct: what can be said, in which context? (for example ‘secretos en reunión es mala educación’ which means it’s bad manners to whisper in public) , we have to create awareness in all digital users of a code of conduct, a ‘Netiquette’ of the digital world.  What can be posted and to which public? Posting pictures of a trash party on Facebook:  is it OK to publish it open to all public without the consent of each person in the picture?  Is it OK for your phone company supplier to publish or sell your whereabouts?

The manifesto points also out the problem of attention:  everybody wants to capture our attention, but as we can only focus on one thing at a time, our attention is a limited asset as time.

We believe that societies must protect, cherish and nurture humans’ attentional capabilities. This does not mean giving up searching for improvements: that shall always be useful. Rather, we assert that attentional capabilities are a finite, precious and rare asset. In the digital economy, attention is approached as a commodity to be exchanged on the market place, or to be channelled in work processes. But this instrumental approach to attention neglects the social and political dimensions of it, i.e., the fact that the ability and the right to focus our own attention is a critical and necessary condition for autonomy, responsibility, reflexivity, plurality, engaged presence, and a sense of meaning.

This ‘Onlife Manifesto’ seems an interesting initiative.  I’ll look more into it.

The ‘new deal on data’ for personal data protection.

A few days ago I went to Italy, and look what caught my eyes in the airport coming back:

Pub-DataPrivacy

So I cannot but get into the ‘new deal on data’ for personal data protection of Alex Pentland that I mentioned on the previous post 🙂

His idea is to treat personal data as an asset, and each of us would ‘own’ the data about ourselves.  He makes an analogy with a bank account, see how he explains it:

 …In 2007 I suggested an analogy with the English common law tenets of possession, use and disposal:

You have the right to possess data about you. Regardless of what entity collects the data, the data belongs to you, and you can access the data at any time. Data collectors thus play a role akin to a bank, managing the data on behalf of their “customers”.

You have the right to full control over the use of your data. The terms of use must be opt-in and clearly explained in plain language.  If you are not happy with the way a company uses your data, you can remove those data, just as you would close your account with a bank that is not providing satisfactory service.

You have the right to dispose of or distribute your data.  You have the option to have data about you destroyed or redeployed.

There are still some details to think about and see how we deal with them.   I find it fair his proposal of the ‘full control’ through an opt-in method.  But is it covering all the situations?  Is it feasable?  Can you contact everybody to be sure they allow you to use the data in a particular context?  What if we are facing a catastrophe scenario?

And what if before you withdraw data from a company, they had used it to do statistics, obtaining aggregated results based on your data?  Would it be reasonable to ask them to take it out from there?  Would it be even feasible or just too much costly or complex?  It may not be possible to draw it back entirely, but if your data has served to a calculation, well, the calculation may be wrong now if they go back again to their ‘raw’ data as yours is not there anymore, but you’re not ‘loosing privacy’ either.  So I think it we can live with this situation.

It gets complicated when we talk about private data not about a person, like a company’s data.  Or even more complicated when it’s difficult to identify a natural ‘owner’.

There are still issues we need to go through, even though I see many in the same line of Alex’s proposal that we should have the ownership over our personal data.

 

Alex Pentland’s article on Data-Driven Society

I recently got the new issue from Scientific American (October 2013), and in the front page was announced the article ‘The Data-Driven Society’ by Alex Pentland.  I just had to read it 🙂

He co-leads the World Economic Forum on Big Data and Personal Data initiatives.  He was talking about all the digital bread crumbs we leave behind on our daily life (like gps and gsm info, or electronic payments) and what can be done with it.

With his students of the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory, he is discovering mathematical patterns through data analytics that can predict human behaviour. ‘Bread crumbs record our behaviors as it really happens’ he says, it is more accurate than the information from social media, where we choose what we want to disclose from ourselves.  Alex and his team are in particular interested in the patterns of idea flows.

Among the most surprising findings that my students and I have discovered is that patterns of idea flow (measured by purchasing behavior, physical mobility or communications) are directly related to productivity growth and creative output.

Analysing those flows, he uncovered 2 factors that have a positive pattern of healthy idea flow:

  • engagement: connecting to others, usually in the same team or organisation, and
  • exploration: going abroad to exchange ideas.

Both are needed for creativity and innovation to flourish.  To find those factors, he based his research on graphs of different types of interactions, like person-to-person, emails, sms..

We may not have the tools he used (like an electronic badges for tracking person-to-person interactions) but intuitively this is something we know, a good communication is essential for the success of a team, but talking to an external person may provide a new insight.  It’s always good to be proved right, isn’t it?

Check my next post, I’ll continue with his article, there are a lot of great concepts he is presenting as the ‘new deal on data’ for personal data protection.

 

Snowden showed us the dangers of Big Data with PRISM, are we up to the challenge to steer its use?

A television screen shows former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

 

As we already discussed on my Big Data presentations,   being able to analyse the amount of data that traces all our actions and movements is a great opportunity to improve our lives, as much as to do business, but it can also be exploited for the worst.  Now Edward Snowden has put a clear case under the spotlights, will this make us move? Will this lead to change?

It’s time to consider what ethical codes and regulations can be issued, so that this excellent opportunity that technology is putting in our hands, that is sharing, measuring and extracting knowledge from all aspects of our lives, is not misused.