Been spending more and more time at work trying to get a handle on the politics (and definition) of de-identification. De-identification, in short, are processes designed to make it more difficult to connect information with one’s identity. While industry and academics will argue over what exactly that means, my takeaway is that de-identification battles have become proxies for a profound lack of trust and transparency on both sides. I tried to flesh out this idea a bit, and in the process, made the mistake of wading into the world of statistics. // Read more on the Future of Privacy Forum Blog.
Information is power, as the saying goes, and big data promises the power to make better decisions across industry, government, and everyday life. Data analytics offers an assortment of new tools to harness data in exciting ways, but society has been slow to engage in a meaningful analysis of the social value of all this data. The result has been something of a policy paralysis when it comes to building consensus around certain uses of information.
Advocates noted this dilemma several years ago during the early stages of the effort to develop a Do Not Track (DNT) protocol at the World Wide Web Consortium. DNT was first proposed seven years ago as a technical mechanism to give users control over whether they were being tracked online, but the protocol remains a work in progress. The real issue lurking behind the DNT fracas was not any sort of technical challenge, however, but rather the fact that the ultimate value of online behavioral advertising remains an open question. Industry touts the economic and practical benefits of an ad-supported Internet, while privacy advocates maintain that targeted advertising is somehow unfair. Without any efforts to bridge that gap, consensus has been difficult to reach.
As we are now witnessing in conversations ranging from student data to consumer financial protection, the DNT debate was but a microcosm of larger questions surrounding the ethics of data use. Many of these challenges are not new, but the advent of big data has made the need for consensus ever more pressing.
For example, differential pricing schemes – or price discrimination – have increasingly become a hot-button issue. But charging one consumer a different price than another for the same good is not a new concept; in fact, it happens every day. The Wall Street Journal recently explored how airlines are the “world’s best price discriminators,” noting that what an airline passenger pays is tied to the type of people they’re flying with. As a result, it currently costs more for U.S. travelers to fly to Europe than vice versa because the U.S. has a stronger economy and quite literally can afford higher prices. Businesses are in business, after all, to make money, and at some level, differential pricing makes economic sense.
However, there remains a basic concern about the unfairness of these practices. This has been amplified by perceived changes in the nature of how price discrimination works. The recent White House “Big Data Report” recognized that while there are perfectly legitimate reasons to offers different prices for the same products, the capacity for big data “to segment the population and to stratify consumer experiences so seamlessly as to be almost undetectable demands greater review.” Customers have long been sorted into different categories and groupings. Think urban or rural, young or old. But big data has made it markedly easier to identify those characteristics that can be used to ensure every individual customer is charged based on their exact willingness to pay.
The Federal Trade Commission has taken notice of this shift, and begun to start a much-needed conversation about the ultimate value of these practices. At a recent discussion on consumer scoring, Rachel Thomas from the Direct Marketing Association suggested that companies have always tried to predict customer wants and desires. What’s truly new about data analytics, she argued, is that it offers the tools to actually get predictions right and to provide “an offer that is of interest to you, as opposed to the person next to you.” While some would argue this is a good example of market efficiency, others worry that data analytics can be used to exploit or manipulate certain classes of consumers. Without a good deal more public education and transparency on the part of decision-makers, we face a future where algorithms will drive not just predictions but decisions that will exacerbate socio-economic disparities.
The challenge moving forward is two-fold. Many of the more abstract harms allegedly produced by big data are fuzzy at best – filter bubbles, price discrimination, and amorphous threats to democracy are hardly traditional privacy harms. Moreover, few entities are engaging in the sort of rigorous analysis necessary to determine whether or not a given data use will make these things come to pass.
According to the White House, technological developments necessitate a shift in privacy thinking and practice toward responsible uses of data rather than its mere collection and analysis. While privacy advocates have expressed skepticism of use-based approaches to privacy, increased transparency and accountability mechanisms have been approached as a way to further augment privacy protections. Developing broad-based consensus around data use may be more important.
Consensus does not mean unanimity, but it does require a conversation that considers the interests of all stakeholders. One proposal that could help drive consensus are the development of internal review boards or other multi-stakeholder oversight mechanisms. Looking to the long-standing work of institutional review boards, or IRBs, in the field of human subject testing, Ryan Calo suggested that a similar structure could be used as a tool to infuse ethical considerations into consumer data analytics. IRBs, of course, engage in a holistic analysis of the risks and benefits that could result from any human testing project. They are also made up of different stakeholders, encompassing a wide-variety of diverse backgrounds and professional expertise. These boards also come to a decision before a project can be pursued.
Increasingly, technology is leaving policy behind. While that can both promote innovation and ultimately benefit society, it makes the need for consensus about the ethics at stake all the more important.