Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Social Contract and Big Data/Response to Unsworth

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Social Contract and Big Data/Response to Unsworth

Article excerpt


Big data is a catch term for the massive amount of data collected continually through individual interaction with ubiquitous technology and the multitude of processes and procedures running in the background to support and record today's society. Some have asked if the size of the data collected, and our continual ability to parse and mine large datasets for meaningful information, change the social contract. This question is addressed by presenting a review of social contract theory and by incorporating aspects of Anthony Giddens's structuration theory and John Rawls's concept of justice.

The Social Contract and Big Data

It has been asked, in academic as well as business circles, if the influx of big data and its use change the social contract (Chesterman, 20ii; Peters, 20i2). One reason this question is pertinent today, according to Chesterman (20ii), is that the idea of a social contract was once based specifically on the relationship between the governed and the governor. Today, however, commercial interests and the data collection made possible via individual use of technology influence government decision-making. Definitions of big data most frequently include the 3Vs-volume, variety, and velocity. These are the challenges that researchers as well as organizations face when managing large data sets. The term big data was traced to a paper that appeared in i997 written by NASA scientists, Michael Cox and David Ellsworth (Press, 20i4). In it they discuss the problem of creating computer visualizations of large data sets, using then current graphics systems:

Visualization provides an interesting challenge for computer systems: data sets are generally quite large, taxing the capacities of main memory, local disk, and even remote disk. We call this the problem of big data. When data sets do not fit in main memory (in core), or when they do not fit even on local disk, the most common solution is to acquire more resources [Cox & Ellsworth, i997, p. 235].

For purposes of this article the definition provided in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary will be used: "an accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional database management tools" ("Big data," n.d.). According to Chesterman (20ii), trust is a casualty of this increased ability to know more than ever before, about each of us. Because of this, he asserts that the social contract is no longer sufficient, and needs to be redefined. From a business perspective, Forbes journalist Brad Peters is quoted as claiming that big data "changes the social contract" (Davis, 20i2, p. 28). Peters goes on to state that, because of the mass personalization that is a driving force behind much commerce today, trust is ever more important (Davis, 20i2). The consumer or user of an online service must trust the company or government agency enough to continue to use the service. The individual must believe that the advertising being directed at him/her is relevant, that the data collected during their digital transactions, and the algorithms created to make sense of it, are being used justly. Trust is one of the concepts that undergirds any type of contract (Malhotra, 2009).

In today's world of ubiquitous technology and big data, trust is a necessary and foundational principle for the protection of personal information. Since we cannot be exactly sure how (or by whom) the data traces we leave behind may be used, it is especially important that we can trust that the process by which the policies are designed is transparent. Whether data is being used for our consumerist benefit or for national security it is important that we can trust the intentions of the user. A new type of social contract need not be based on the assumption that data collection and its consequent use by the government and commercial entities leads to unwarranted laying lives bare. Rather, we need to consider how values such as trust, privacy, and justice can (re)inform the social contract in order to support these principles. …

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