Ethical and Social Faces of Datafication

Laptop Computer, Big Data, Datafication

Data is often referred to as the new oil of the digital age, with the world generating about 0.33 zettabytes daily.

Datafication involves converting various aspects of our lives into digital data. While it has enhanced our experiences in countless ways, the process has raised various ethical and social concerns.

This article discusses the basics of datafication, focusing on unusual and even controversial applications. It also highlights the specific challenges these practices pose and the measures taken to surmount them.

Most importantly, it provides recommendations for user protection against those who might use their data against their privacy and safety.

What is Datafication?

Datafication involves converting various forms of information, including human behavior, transactions, and physical objects, into digital data. This data can then be collected, stored, analyzed, and utilized for various purposes.

Datafication has undoubtedly become a defining force in society, providing almost every imaginable benefit. From basic conveniences like automated phone directory assistance to more critical applications such as medical research, it has proven its mettle in aiding different areas of human development.

In business, it empowers data-driven decision-making, personalizes customer experiences, increases efficiency, and creates new revenue streams. In government and governance, datafication plays a pivotal role in smart city development, optimizing resource allocation, and improving public services.

Healthcare also benefits from datafication through personalized medicine, expedited research, and early disease detection. Education stands to be revolutionized by datafication, offering personalized learning experiences and empowering educators with insights. In entertainment and media, datafication enhances user engagement and content creation.

Datafication undoubtedly holds great potential. However, it demands vigilance in addressing privacy and ethical concerns across these diverse sectors.

The Problem With Datafication

The term “datafication” was coined in 2013 by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier in their groundbreaking book, “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.” Even the two acknowledge the risks of a data-centric world in their 12-chapter opus.

Examining these issues is crucial in understanding the evolving dynamics between technology, privacy, ethics, and society. Here are some of the least acceptable applications of datafication observed today:

Predictive policing

One controversial application of datafication is predictive policing, where law enforcement agencies employ historical crime data and algorithms to forecast potential crime locations and times. Transparency, more straightforward guidelines, and accountability mechanisms for predictive policing algorithms all help tackle this problem.

Social credit systems

In certain nations, social credit systems employ datafication to assign citizens scores based on their behavior, encompassing financial responsibility, online activities, and social interactions.

Strengthening data protection laws can provide protection, emphasizing oversight and transparency mechanisms within social credit systems. Fostering citizen awareness can empower individuals to demand greater accountability.

Automated hiring and employee monitoring

Datafication is gaining prominence in recruitment and employee management, with automated hiring algorithms analyzing applicants’ data, potentially introducing biases. Workplace monitoring technologies may also be used to track employees’ activities, raising concerns about privacy and autonomy.

Challenges include the potential for automated hiring systems to discriminate against certain groups, perpetuating historical biases inadvertently. It also runs the risk of invasive workplace monitoring infringing on employee privacy and trust.

To overcome these challenges, employers can focus on designing fair and bias-free hiring algorithms, establishing clear privacy policies and monitoring guidelines, and involving employees in decisions about data collection and monitoring to foster transparency and privacy respect.

Data brokers and personal information sales

Data brokers gather extensive personal information and distribute it to third parties, often without individuals’ knowledge or consent, primarily for purposes such as targeted advertising and political campaigning.

Such a practice poses challenges, including concerns about the lack of consent and the potential vulnerabilities to data breaches and identity theft associated with collecting and selling personal data. According to IBM, the average cost of a data breach is at an all-time high of $4.45 million this year, up 2.3 percent from 2022.

Some advocate for individuals’ rights to own and control their personal data, giving them decision-making power over its use and sale. Equally important is consumer education, which can empower individuals by informing them about data collection practices and strategies for protecting their privacy.

Facial recognition technology

Privacy invasion is a key concern as facial recognition is deployed without individuals’ consent in public spaces, leading to worries about constant surveillance. Various jurisdictions have imposed bans or moratoriums on specific facial recognition uses, like law enforcement, until comprehensive regulations are established. Additionally, developers are actively working to minimize bias and enhance accuracy in facial recognition algorithms.

How to Protect Yourself From Predatory Datafication

White caution cone on keyboard

To enhance online privacy, individuals should consider implementing several strategies. Beginning with virtual private networks (VPNs), they can encrypt internet connection, allowing anonymous browsing by masking one’s IP address. It’s advisable to choose a reputable VPN service to ensure added security.

Additionally, exploring privacy-focused web browsers and plugins can help obscure online behavior. Embracing decentralized services for email, cloud storage, and social networking also offers users greater control over their data and reduces risks associated with centralized entities.

Prioritizing communication tools that offer end-to-end encryption ensures the security of messages. Regularly reviewing app permissions, denying unnecessary access, and exploring app permission managers or privacy-centric operating systems can provide finer control over data access.

According to a recent survey, consumers still want more control over their data despite their willingness to provide it for a better digital customer experience. It includes 90 percent of respondents wanting to know what specific data companies have on them and many others fearing for their online data security.

By recognizing the potential pitfalls and actively seeking remedies, we can ensure datafication serves the greater good while minimizing its negative consequences.

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