In the first part of this series of posts looking at how we are preparing students for life in this technology filled world, I discussed the currently offered e-safety programmes provided in schools. I also raised the issue of how we are increasingly making use of more and more internet connected devices in our homes, or the Internet of Things (IoT). You can read the first post here. In this posting I intend to cover the implications of big data and ethics. I believe each of these topics merits inclusion in our discussion and teaching in preparing students for life in this increasingly technological and digital world.
As we make use of technology we create data. If we are making use of a mobile phone to carry out a google search, we create data in terms of the search terms we are looking for, the device and browser we are using, our internet address (IP address) and our identify if we are logged into the device via a GoogleID. Even if we are not logged in it may be possible to identify us from other data such as our IP address, phone type, etc. We may also generate location based information either from the GPS info on our phone or from geographical info associated with our IP address. All internet connected devices will generate data which may be stored somewhere on the internet. This includes our fitness trackers, mobile phone, Sat Nav in our car, voice assistants such as the amazon echo and internet enabled children’s toys to name but a few.
In addition to devices the services we access also generate data. As mentioned above using google for searching produces data, as does using Facebook, other social media use, online banking and online shopping among others. We also provide our own data in uploading photos and comments to social media. Even some of the things in our “real life” world generate data such as going shopping and then using a supermarket rewards card. The items we purchase are logged and with the help of the rewards card the supermarket is then able to track this back to us as individuals.
The issue with creating all of this data is how it might be used. One of my favourite examples in discussing this with students is the example of Target the US shopping brand. They were able to use customer shopping data, related to a loyalty card programme to identify if a consumer was pregnant (Business Insider, 2012). Their reason for doing this was that pregnant customers tended to be more profitable shoppers hence trying to identify them as soon as possible would allow stores to target them and generate more money. The issue here is that they were able to identify a young woman who was pregnant before even the family members in her own household were aware. Would you be happy for a company to be able to identify very personal private things about you from the data you leave behind? Does this feel like an invasion of your privacy?
A more recent issue, that of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (BBC, 2018), highlights how data might be used to categorise or profile users in order to deliver targeted content. In the case of Cambridge Analytica it is suggested that the data was used to allow targeted campaigns aimed at changing the voting preferences of individuals and as a result an election outcome. Consider that your profile suggests you have a particular interest in the environment and in environmentally friendly projects. A marketer therefore shows you content which shows how the candidate they are supporting is supporting the environment whether this is one other their focal areas or not. They repeatedly drop this content into your feed to the point that you sub-consciously associate the candidate with the environment. The end result of this being you have more positive feelings towards this candidate and are therefore more likely to vote for them. Although privacy is of concern, I find the potential use of data to try and influence individual’s habits, behaviours and even thinking, of even greater concern.
Another fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that of how our data is managed and may be shared. In this case a basic app which presented itself as a questionnaire both gathered data on the user but also was able to scrape data relating to other Facebook users who were friends with the user completing the questionnaire. The NHS feel foul of a similar issue around sharing data when it was identified that they were sharing patient data with Google (The Guardian, 2017) When we decide to share data with a particular site or service, do we know who they might share this data with and the purpose for which this data may end up being used?
Also consider the growth in Smart devices and home helpers such as the Amazon Echo which now exist in our homes. These devices are listening all of the time in order to be ready to respond to our voice commands. As part of the process of responding to voice commands they are gathering data in order to help in refining the software but do users have a view on what data these devices share with the vendor, being Apple, Google, Amazon, etc?
For me the issue isn’t a simple decision as to sharing data or not. We share data in order to allow services and sites to make our lives easier. We are used to sites such as Amazon highlighting products we might be interested in based on our previous purchases. Google maps might suggest an alternative route to work based on data gleaned from the phones of users stuck in unusually slow traffic on your normal route. Facebook might identify potential Friends for adding to our account or might suggest people to tag within a photo. We want the convenience brought about by sharing data with companies however equally we want our privacy. I am not sure we can have it both ways.
When I was a teenager I generated very little data; It was the late 80’s. Today our students are already generating massive amounts of data and the current indications are that this is only going to increase. As such our students need to be aware of the issues surrounding data, how it might be used, shared, how it can be monetized and how its use might impact on their lives. Only through awareness can they consider and make informed decisions regarding the data they share or have already shared.
Ethics in a cyber world
The issue of ethics in our technological world can be related to the Cambridge Analytica incident. Did we believe that Facebook would act ethically in relation to the data we provided them? A challenge here is the fact that Facebook are a company, they have shareholders and ultimately they seek to make profit. As such a focus on thoroughly considering the ethical issues of the data they gather and how others might use this data might not be in the best interests of the company in terms of its bottom line. Ethics in the world of technology is likely to become a growing concern.
To be clear, in relation the above incident, my belief is not that Facebook acted unethically, but that they simply weren’t aware of the potential implications of the data they were allowing third parties to scrape from users accounts. Facebook is, after all, one of the first social media tools which has gained wide acceptance and therefore a lot is its activities are a first for Facebook but also a first for the world. That said it does serve to indicate what might be possible should our data end up in the hands of an individual or organisation with nefarious plans or self-interest at heart.
In the case of Google the potential situation is similar. Do we believe Google acts ethically? A perfect example is the issue with google Shopping. Ethically you would expect a google search to result in the most popular items or shops being displayed however in 2017 they were fined by the EU in relation to artificially promoting their own price comparison services over that of competitors. (The Guardian, 2017). This is one issue that has been identified but consider how Google might favour particular news items, or particular viewpoints on current events over others thereby potentially influencing the views of people across the world. Do we trust that they won’t abuse the power we provide them?
Considering again google, when we are researching using the internet we generally only look at the first page of results. Are these results a fair representation of the available viewpoints? Maybe they could favour some viewpoints on historical “fact” over others. Is it possible that Google might influence these results to suit their own ends, or an outside agency or individual might utilise the nature of the google search algorithms to influence the results which google ultimately returns?
Another example around ethics, although slightly different in nature, is the Volkswagen engine emissions scandal. Here Volkswagen had programmed the software in their cars to perform differently under test than they do in real world conditions thereby creating fake emissions statistics. Purchasers of Volkswagen cars would have accepted the statistics provided via independent tests, accepting that Volkswagen would operate ethically however it turns out this was not the case. Consider all the devices we now use with have some form of computing power. What scope is there for each company to either act ethically or unethically and what are the potential outcomes?
For me the main reason to discuss ethics with students is simply awareness. We can no longer afford to operate on blind trust, trusting the terms and conditions of sites and trusting the well-meaning nature of the services they provide. We now need to be more aware and more considering of the potential implications of the data we are sharing. Only through discussing these issues with students can we hope to build this awareness.
We all are signing up to exciting new services and buying new devices. Amazon makes shopping easier, Google Maps makes finding new places easier, Facebook makes keeping in touch with distant friends and family easier and my fitness tracker makes my fitness regime easier to manage to name but a few items. The positives are obvious. These are the reasons for which we buy these new devices or sign up to new services. The issue is, do we consider the possible other side of things. Do we consider that the organisations concerned may not have our best interests or ethics at their heart, that they may make mistakes or that they may facilitate others to use the vast amounts of data against us. As our students provide every increasing amounts of data about themselves, as they sign up to ever more services, it is important that they develop awareness and discuss the possible implications.
BBC News, May 2018, Cambridge Analytica: Facebook data-harvest firm to shut, BBC News, Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43983958, downloaded on 03-05-2018
Boffey. D, Jul 2017, Google fined record €2.4bn by EU over search engine results, The Guardian, Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jun/27/google-braces-for-record-breaking-1bn-fine-from-eu, downloaded on 02-05-2018
Hotten. R, Dec 2015, Volkswagen: The scandal explained, BBC News, Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34324772, downloaded on 02-05-2018