Big Data and the knotty issue of public trust and attitudes

23 February 2017

We are in a fast-changing landscape of digital data inhabiting daily life, policy and business in the form of algorithms, Big Data, data science, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and smart cities, to cite just the most recent trends. Not a day goes by without news coverage relating to ethical dilemmas that are thrown up by this data innovation. Old notions such as privacy and consent, which have governed ethics around data, are being stretched to breaking point. New questions have arisen such as how we can hold algorithms to account or whose fault is an accident in a driverless car. The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) has made the case in its Data Manifesto that we must harness data for the good of society, but in a way that maintains public trust.

A survey by Ipsos MORI for the RSS in 2014 suggests that there is a general ‘data trust deficit’, whereby trust in institutions to use our data appropriately is lower than trust in them in general. Public support for sharing personal data depends very much on who it is being shared with – and for what reason.

The research indicates that when a case for public benefit is clearly stated and when there are safeguards in place, more of the public take a positive view in favour of data use and sharing than disagree due to privacy risks. The addition of safeguards, such as anonymisation of data or punishment for data misuse, significantly improves the level of support from 33 per cent to around 51 per cent.

One message for policymakers therefore is that they need to clearly communicate the value of any data sharing they wish to gain support for, and they need to put safeguards in place. It is also noteworthy that there is considerable opposition to sharing data for commercial purposes, and so this is an area where policy-makers must tread very carefully.

We should remember, however, that what underpins trust is trustworthiness. The Government must therefore consider how it can ensure that its usage of personal data is trustworthy. This means ensuring security, privacy, good governance and equitable treatment. This has been lacking in some high-profile initiatives, such as ‘care.data’.

If we do not stop to think about these issues and address them proactively, data innovation will not wait for us, and we may end up in a position where public trust is (rightly) lost. This could seriously set back innovation for public good – we have seen this before, for example with genetically modified food and more recently with the sharing of health records.

The RSS has argued that the time is right for a new independent institution to step back and consider the ethical implications of the data technologies that are evolving. Such a body – a Council for Data Ethics – would have the space to develop new frameworks and norms which in turn lead to institutions and data governance which are in the public interest.

Hetan Shah, Executive Director, The Royal Statistical Society

This article was first published in Reform’s ‘Big Data in government: challenges and opportunities’ conference brochure. To read more articles, click here.

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