Big Data and the ethics of community surveillance

Big Data and the ethics of community surveillance

In the previous essay of this ongoing series about Big Data, I discussed how the emotional states of the dominant culture are usually aggregated as data points that are subsequently used to shape policy making (for example anti terrorist or anti immigration laws). In turn, data gathered from marginalized groups is usually used to confirm deeply ingrained prejudices within the dominant culture. However, there are hardly any conceptions of privacy in our current discussions that would consider extending the rights afforded to individuals to entire communities. The Council of Europe (CoE) in their Study Report“Ethnic” statistics and data protection in the Council of Europe countries” attempts to draw a distinction between private data pertaining to individuals vs group or community wide statistics. In the report, the CoE states that “the very nature of statistical analysis, which involves making an “impersonal use of personal data”, suggests that it cannot harm individuals if procedures for ensuring anonymity of data are properly followed, and confidentiality is scrupulously respected throughout the process of collecting and producing data”. Their conclusion, citing a European Union directive is that “processing and dissemination of data require no special supervision once those data have been made anonymous and cannot be linked to individuals”. However, these same statistics, as I outlined in the examples listed in this essay about the myth of “neutral data”, can result in individual harm when they are used for political purposes or by for profit corporations as part of their business practices.

In the US, the situation is not different than in the European Union. In the 2003 guideline published at the US Department of Justice website, “How to correctly collect and analyze racial profiling data”, law enforcement is advised to “decide what questions they are trying to answer, and then craft a data collection plan that will facilitate finding answers to those questions”, implying that the questions themselves would be of a “neutral” nature and not be directly biased by centuries of existing racial and socioeconomic prejudice. Moreover, the entire document does not contain a single entry about the ethics of data collection for the purpose of racial profiling or about the ethical way to store and/ or share this data. Instead, there are several statements about “police ethics” in regards to use of excessive force as a result of the use of this data. The collected data itself is treated across the document as an indisputable right of the State with nary a word about the wider implications for the affected members of the group. The Illinois police department created a “citizen brochure” about data collection used for racial profiling purposes where it clearly states that a citizen cannot refuse to participate in data collection efforts.

At the end of January of this year, the Dutch police announced a new cooperation agreement with the National Bureau for Statistics. The purpose of this collaboration is, according to their joint statement, to “aggregate neighborhood demographic data and criminal activity reports to gauge the emotions behind criminal incidents”. I insist, by comparing demographic information about a neighborhood (percentage of immigrants, percentage of non white people, etc), together with criminal activity that takes place in said neighborhood, the Chief of Dutch Police hopes to find the “emotions” behind the statistics. So much for the idea that Big Data is a neutral field, imbued by objectivity and removed from the subjective realm of human feelings.

In spite of all the harmful ways in which communal data is currently used, the indisputable right to privacy for individuals is not only not extended to communities but the ethics and practices of record keeping are not granted either. Whereas an individual citizen usually has a right to request all data gathered about them (through local variations of FOIA requests) and, in many instances has the right to request the destruction of records that might harm him or her in the future, data about groups can not only be kept indefinitely but its historical aggregation can be used to further stigmatize the group. Historical records of poverty, employment and education of ethnic groups can be used to further “prove” deeply ingrained stereotypes about them. Racist beliefs are rooted in centuries old historical records, completely removed from the socioeconomic conditions that led to those statistics. Structural conditions affecting marginalized groups such as slavery, indentured servitude, disenfranchisement, segregation and the concomitant lack of access to healthcare, education, property ownership and wealth distribution are conveniently disregarded when analyzing the continuum of historical statistics that might explain current situations within these groups. Again, the “numbers” are treated as “neutral indexes” rather than as part of a specific historical condition.

Privacy is currently thought as the exclusive realm of the individual and not as a communal right deserving of protection, particularly in instances where this communal data can harm the group from which it was gathered. Yet, in spite of the myriad ways in which communal data can be potentially used to further marginalize groups, there are no policies or ethical boundaries or best practices involving privacy rights extended to communities. Corporations use the data to generate profits; politicians use it to further their careers by appealing to fears and deep seated prejudices at the expense of marginalized groups; statistics, figures and surveys are used to justify white fears and discriminatory practices; people can and do die at the hands of law enforcement trained for decades with the use of decontextualized data to justify racial profiling. And yet, even though there is a blurred line between what constitutes private and public spaces in an era of Big Data gathering and increased forms of private and State surveillance, privacy and data protections are still perceived as an exclusively individual right.

Next up, in this series I will discuss how authoritarian regimes have historically made use of Big Data as a tool of enforcement for State violence.

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