Data ethics needed to protect democracy, prof writes in op-ed

Data Center

It sounds like something out of a spy movie, Colin Koopman says: Foreign agents and for-profit companies disrupt American democracy with data technologies. 

“Today we know that this is not fiction but fact,” writes Koopman, a UO associate professor of philosophy and ethics, in a New York Times op-ed. “It is a secret so open that even its perpetrators seem halfhearted about hiding it.”

Koopman’s article calls for an end to the “develop first, question later” ethos of data science by creating regulations and cultural expectations that require the ethical design of data technologies. Doing so, he writes, is necessary to protect democracy.

Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm employed by the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election, has data points on more than 230 million Americans. It is under scrutiny for allegedly misappropriating data from millions of social media users.

“Its promise of elections driven by data ultimately implies a vision of government steered not by people but by algorithms and by an expanding data-mining culture operating without restrictions,” Koopman writes. “That such threats to democracy are now possible is due in part to the fact that our society lacks an information ethics adequate to its deepening dependence on data.”

An acceptable ethics of data, Koopman said, would require new regulations governing personal data privacy and implicit bias in algorithms. It would also establish cultural expectations, starting in high schools and colleges, that would guide students to consider the ethical design and use of the technologies they might one day develop.

Last week, after reports that Cambridge Analytica harvested the private information of 50 million Facebook users, Mark Zuckerberg vowed to better protect user data.

“This is like lashing a rope around the cracking foundation of a building,” Koopman writes. “What we need is for an ethics of data to be engineered right into the information skyscrapers being built today. We need data ethics by design … however successful Mr. Zuckerberg will be in making amends, he will assuredly do almost nothing to prevent the next wunderkind from coming along and building the next killer app that will unleash who knows what before anybody even has a chance to notice.”

For more, see “How Democracy Can Survive Big Data” in the New York Times.

Koopman is the director of the UO philosophy and ethics minor and the new media and culture certificate program. His current research focus is on the politics of information and the ethics of data.