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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


BECKER, Marcel. Ethics in the big data era: Privacy as autonomy and privacy as dignity. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.4-1, pp.669-682. ISSN 2224-7912.

Reflection on the ethical challenges in the big data era firstly requires that we think about the interaction between technology and society. We discuss two stories about the origin of technology. In the biblical story technology is introduced when paradise is lost; labour is the basic condition. In the Greek story of Prometheus technology originates from the Gods. Following the "Christian" line of thought critical ideas on technology have dominated philosophy for a long time. At the end of the 20th century, however, the so-called school of The Empirical Turn introduced a more nuanced approach. It emphasized that technology is mediating our life world, meaning it has an important role in structuring human experience. Given the inevitable presence of technology, the vital challenge is to analyze technology's influence and to correct undesirable outcomes. This challenge is expressed in (B. Stiegler's and J. Derrida's explanation of) the Greek word pharmakon that means both poison and medicine. In big data, research patterns are discovered by analyzing data with high volume, velocity and "variety". These patterns are used for finely grained analyses of individuals. This relation between the general pattern and the concrete situation differs from scientific approaches (where causality and theoretical models are of decisive importance). The difference raises all kinds of epistemic questions, but we focus on the ethical dimension. We discuss three ethical problems: 1. There is no transparency about algorithms, 2. Characteristics of people are presented in profiles, which have a certain rigidity, 3. The use of profiles deeply influences the life of people; they even have a performative character. The key concept in discussions about these threats to core values in our society is privacy. This notion is often understood in terms of autonomy and self-control. For instance, the Silicon Valley giants ask people to give away personal data by using an informed consent model. Marc Zuckerberg uses the vocabulary of control of information. The similarity between privacy and autonomy gives rise to serious problems. First of all conceptually: privacy concerns access to information, whereas autonomy is about control. Secondly there are huge practical problems: the informed consent model doesn't work. People give away their personal data without knowing much about the digital data flows. It is better to speak about uninformed consent. These problems suggest that we use a more fundamental concept as underlying justification for privacy: dignity. This notion is prominent in Human Rights Declarations and in constitutions of several countries, including South Africa. Of course it is a frustratingly nebulous concept, but a view on its history can give us relevant information. The most powerful philosophical expression of dignity can be found in Immanuel Kant's The Groundwork, in which he contrasts dignity with price and commodity. The close relation with autonomy is widely known. In other works, however, Kant concurs with the widely agreed notion of dignity as a value in human intercourse, as it is related to the accommodation of social norms and treating people respectfully. Following Vlastos and Waldron we present the thesis that the French Revolution presented an "upwards equalization": after 1789 the norms once characteristic for treating aristocratic people were applied to the treatment of every citizen in society. In the twentieth century a gap between Europe and the United States of America became visible. In the United States, dignity was present neither in the Constitution nor the amendments. We can recognize this in the emphasis on freedom of expression and laxer standards of public treatment, compared to Europe. In Europe dignity plays a more important role, and it counts as underlying value in justifications of privacy policies. The arbitrary treatment of people on the basis of profiles and the lack of transparency is considered as violations of human dignity. Therefore Europe introduced stricter privacy laws. In South Africa dignity is a core value, but until now it has been sharply distinguished from privacy. Here lies a new challenge in the digital era.

Palavras-chave : Digital media; Ethics; Privacy; Autonomy; Dignity; Big data; Philosophy of technology; Algorithms; Informed consent; Equality; Normativity.

        · resumo em Holandês     · texto em Holandês     · Holandês ( pdf )


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