Big data ethics - a topic for the future?

This is something of an unusual post - we are considering activity around the topic of big data and ethics, and are looking for members' inputs on the matter.  We are looking to see whether you think this is a topic worth ICAEW exploring, and what your opinions of the issues are.  Please either leave a comment or contact me by email with your feedback.

What is big data ethics?

It is the consideration of the ethical issues in gathering, storage, analysis, use, disposal, and combination of data. The literature in the field focuses on the gap between the power of organisations to collect and analyse the vast realms of data produced by modern technology, and the relative lack of ethical oversight into how it is used.

Why is the topic relevant to ICAEW?

ICAEW members advise businesses of all kinds on their business strategy, and are often entrusted themselves with personal or other sensitive data. ACA chartered accountants have an excellent reputation for ethical behaviour, and in particular activity around big data may be covered by the key ethical principles of integrity, professional behaviour, confidentiality, and furthermore the general requirements on marketing.

Concern over data is a common theme among consumers: the Royal Statistical Society terms this a “data trust deficit”, whereby consumers trust in institutions is lower when it comes to their personal data than it is otherwise. There is as yet little content on this subject that is not based on US case studies or academia – there is a gap in which guidance applicable to professionals of all stripes could see ICAEW placed in a leading position.

What might ICAEW say on this topic?

The techniques and approaches used for big data today were originally designed for physical and scientific data without a human element, and may lack sufficient consideration of the ethical questions in how they are used. Trusted professionals should consider not only what is legal, but what is ethical. This is not only due to a benevolent desire to behave ethically, but because legal-yet-unethical behaviour from companies and professionals can have serious impacts on public trust and perception.

There are some excellent thought leadership reports from bodies such as the Council on Big Data, Ethics, and Society and the Royal Statistical Society that we can refer to in forming our own position, which should be tailored to the business & finance / accountancy viewpoint.

What form might our work product take?

This topic could fit into a series of blogs on ITCounts, or a short report. The concepts involved are generally high-level and would be accessible to professional readers from many backgrounds, but the specific recommendations might be more appropriate for senior management or policymakers.

It could also support the IT Faculty’s Annual Lecture.

What are the publications that we have reviewed in preparing this briefing?

Key publications:



Please do let us know your thoughts!

  • I think it is a very timely proposal and deserves at least a lecture if not more.  In addition to any desire to behave ethically and the general impact of bad behaviour on public trust, there is a much "closer to home"  issue which businesses need to address.  Legal-yet-ethical behaviour should now be regarded a serious business risk.  We've had poor ethics in finance, ecology, and public relations wipe out large businesses:  a big data catastrophe is probably just waiting to happen.