Recently, I was fortunate to spend some quality time — as you do at conferences — in the company of Aurelie Pols, DPO for mParticle, talking about digital life impact and what may lie ahead post GDPR as a catalyst for continued debate on data protection and privacy. As you may know, Pols is an eminent speaker on the privacy circuit speaking on data governance and privacy engineering issues, she is also a professor of ethics and privacy at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid and a guest professor at the University of Maastricht and Solvay in Brussels.
She is also a stellar dinner companion.
Notably, and not surprisingly, we kept coming back to the topic of ethics in data. We are truly living in an era increasingly defined, permeated, and shaped by data; it makes the world turn. Data is politics, it is culture, it is everyday life, and it is business. Roles, rights, and responsibilities are continuously being redefined and organized and new ethical questions raised. Ethics, in many respects, will be an integral component of the new paradigm to guide data management in the future. I refer to EDPS Giovani Buttarelli, where he stated, “our commonly held principles and standards of conduct are being influenced by the rapidly changing digital landscape. The ever-increasing collection and use of personal data, development of artificial intelligence and mass surveillance pose serious legal, social, scientific and ethical concerns.”
In the EDPS Strategy 2015–2019, one of the priorities identified was to assess an ethical dimension beyond the application of data protection rules with an aim toward encouraging a better-informed conversation on what big data and the internet of things will mean for citizen digital rights, not only from a European standpoint but also from a global perspective. The perceived need for a worldwide reflection on the subject of data ethics prompted the EDPS to set up an Ethics Advisory Group back in 2016 to reflect on how to reconcile the protection of human rights and technological development. Pols was one of six members of the EAG, and the group has been diligently working since February of 2016, culminating in the January 2018 release of the report: “Towards a Digital Ethics.”
The advisory group’s work looked at general and fundamental questions about what it means to make claims about ethics and human conduct in the digital age, specifically examining the shifts in our sociocultural norms. Human existence and reality are impacted by the modern-day pressures of interconnectivity, algorithmic decision-making, machine-learning, digital surveillance, and the enormous collection of personal data. What, for our society, can and should be retained from our traditional normative ethics, and what can and should be adapted for the technological era?
What has become apparent, as expressed in "Towards a Digital Ethics," is key concepts that have supported our understanding of day-to-day living no longer adequately relate to (or reflect) a world that is dramatically changing due to the rise of digital technologies. Trust, as a concept, is core to how we coexist globally, and by extension, the concept of trust relates to notions of risk and uncertainty. In an age where the lines are increasingly blurred between the physical, individual and online digital (data) subject, trust and digital data privacy are becoming more mainstream than one might imagine. If you are looking for a starting point for diving into data ethics, their report is a thought-provoking read.
Next Tuesday, the EDPS will present its Annual Report for 2017, documenting the progress made in achieving the aims set out in the EDPS Strategy 2015–2019. The news conference will also be live-streamed; more information can be found on their website. Finally, I think it is worth noting that in 2018 the EDPS will be co-hosting the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels. One of the central themes of that conference will be an interdisciplinary debate on digital ethics.
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