The ethics of big data: current and foreseeable issues in biomedical contexts

Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (2):303–341 (2016)
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Abstract

The capacity to collect and analyse data is growing exponentially. Referred to as ‘Big Data’, this scientific, social and technological trend has helped create destabilising amounts of information, which can challenge accepted social and ethical norms. Big Data remains a fuzzy idea, emerging across social, scientific, and business contexts sometimes seemingly related only by the gigantic size of the datasets being considered. As is often the case with the cutting edge of scientific and technological progress, understanding of the ethical implications of Big Data lags behind. In order to bridge such a gap, this article systematically and comprehensively analyses academic literature concerning the ethical implications of Big Data, providing a watershed for future ethical investigations and regulations. Particular attention is paid to biomedical Big Data due to the inherent sensitivity of medical information. By means of a meta-analysis of the literature, a thematic narrative is provided to guide ethicists, data scientists, regulators and other stakeholders through what is already known or hypothesised about the ethical risks of this emerging and innovative phenomenon. Five key areas of concern are identified: informed consent, privacy, ownership, epistemology and objectivity, and ‘Big Data Divides’ created between those who have or lack the necessary resources to analyse increasingly large datasets. Critical gaps in the treatment of these themes are identified with suggestions for future research. Six additional areas of concern are then suggested which, although related have not yet attracted extensive debate in the existing literature. It is argued that they will require much closer scrutiny in the immediate future: the dangers of ignoring group-level ethical harms; the importance of epistemology in assessing the ethics of Big Data; the changing nature of fiduciary relationships that become increasingly data saturated; the need to distinguish between ‘academic’ and ‘commercial’ Big Data practices in terms of potential harm to data subjects; future problems with ownership of intellectual property generated from analysis of aggregated datasets; and the difficulty of providing meaningful access rights to individual data subjects that lack necessary resources. Considered together, these eleven themes provide a thorough critical framework to guide ethical assessment and governance of emerging Big Data practices

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Author Profiles

Luciano Floridi
Yale University
Brent Mittelstadt
University of Oxford

Citations of this work

The Threat of Algocracy: Reality, Resistance and Accommodation.John Danaher - 2016 - Philosophy and Technology 29 (3):245-268.
What is data ethics?Luciano Floridi & Mariarosaria Taddeo - 2016 - Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 374 (2083):20160360.

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References found in this work

Principles of biomedical ethics.Tom L. Beauchamp - 1979 - New York: Oxford University Press. Edited by James F. Childress.
After virtue: a study in moral theory.Alasdair C. MacIntyre - 1981 - Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
Truth and Method.H. G. Gadamer - 1975 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (4):487-490.
Truth and method.Hans Georg Gadamer, Joel Weinsheimer & Donald G. Marshall - 2004 - New York: Continuum. Edited by Joel Weinsheimer & Donald G. Marshall.

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