Published on November 5, 2014

Just because we can do it, does that mean we should? The ethical use of data dilemma

Data sharing open policy process Sciencewise

By Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She supports Involve's work on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network and Sciencewise. She is especially interested in opening up decision-making to those who might otherwise struggle to be heard by policy-makers.

5648548020_ff62467806_oThere are a plethora of laws in statute to protect our right to privacy and the misuse of our data, from the Data Protection Act to the Human Rights Act. But as the technology for collecting, using and analysing data moves forward at lightning speed, people are starting to ask whether there is a difference between the law (can we do it?) and ethics (should we do it?).

Both government and business are highly concerned with these questions.The government is looking to expand their use of data science, and are aware they’re in new territory, throwing up ethical questions which need carefully considered answers. Data science provides amazing opportunities for government to link services, make them more efficient and save money. Involve is working on a couple of data projects with the Cabinet Office at the moment with these issues in mind. We’re supporting the Cabinet Office to develop an ethical framework for government departments undertaking data science projects, as well as supporting them to coordinate an open policy process on data sharing within government.

Private companies have long been interested in the possibilities and potential of different uses of data, and an exciting industry has grown up to develop the technology. Innovative uses of both big and open data have led to apps like Uber, a platform which matches customers with taxi drivers nearby, lowering costs and waiting times. The Tesco clubcard, one of the first major projects to maximise the opportunities of big data, offers users tailored services and discounts based on their customer data.

In some ways, many of the core ethical questions facing the government and the private sector are the same: how do we make best use of data whilst respecting people’s privacy? How do we maintain public trust? How should we gauge the public’s willingness to trade off access to their data for increased benefits and better services? And crucially: just because we are technically able to do something – in that both the technology and the law permits us – does that mean we should? Is it ethical?

On the other hand, the concerns government and private companies have regarding data are necessarily different, reflecting their different functions, motivations and objectives. Whilst private companies seek public trust because it makes good business sense (if people don’t trust you with their data, they won’t give it to you or they’ll withdraw their custom), there are much more serious ramifications for our society and our democracy if government loses public trust on this issue. There is not the same level of “consumer choice” available to citizens. A citizen cannot as easily change their government as they can their mobile phone provider (although arguably there are some key private services citizens have little choice over using, such as banking). In addition, there is some data you are legally obliged to give to government.

Another difference is that where government shares the values of cooperation and collaboration in service of the public, private companies are in competition. So whilst government is able to work on a standard for the ethical use of data to guide departments, in the private sector businesses trade on the differentiation of brand elements, making agreement on a standard a challenge. Some businesses may not even believe in the need for an ethical framework, preferring the consumer to be the ultimate arbiter.

But despite their differences, both government and business will require a deeper understanding of the public’s opinion on data science if they are to move forward in a responsible way, exploring what the public’s “red lines” are and mitigating the risk of reputational damage.

Sciencewise (the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy-making involving science and technology issues) is working on a series of social intelligence pieces bringing the existing research together, to provide an insight into the public’s attitudes to Open Data and Big Data. Companies like Deloitte have also been running their own public engagement processes to understand the public’s outlook better.

However, we still do not have a good grasp of what the public thinks about particular applications of data science, and their outlook on key questions about trust, transparency, accountability, privacy and consent. Without this insight, it will be difficult for government and business to move forward legitimately and with public support. Indeed, not eliciting the public’s views could be politically risky when the issue is so complex, and will impact and concern citizens in a significant way.

The promise of data science is of more responsive, effective, efficient and tailored services, in both the public and private sectors. But first and foremost we have to have an honest and two-way conversation with citizens about what this will entail.


Photo credit: Jakem415


3 Responses to “Just because we can do it, does that mean we should? The ethical use of data dilemma”

  1. March 5, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    Just came across this excellent post — precisely the question to ask is how to fill the vacuum between legal framework and operational decisions about data use (the question we pose in our Nuffield Council on Bioethics report ( and the answer given gestures in precisely the right direction: towards public moral reasoning — as a process rather than a mere exercise.

    • Josephine Suherman-Bailey
      Josephine Suherman-Bailey
      March 6, 2015 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks for your comment Peter. It’s great to know that others working in this area also recognise the need to bring the public along and involve them in a meaningful way in data policy. It goes without saying that we were pleased to see participation included as one of the ethical principles for data initiatives identified by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report. Hopefully the next government will see the need too.

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