Big Data, Ethics, and Individual Freedom

By Maddi Erdall & Ani Hakobyan

On October 4, 2018, the Berkeley Institute of European Studies, the Miller Institute for Global Challenges & the Law, the Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, and the School of Information hosted Peter Dabrock (Chair of the German Ethics Council) for a lecture on “Freedom and Ethics in the Era of Big Data” for an audience of 80 people. As a Protestant theologian and Chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Dabrock was able to provide a unique take on this controversial topic.

Utilizing the Facebook suicide prevention tool as an example, Dabrock introduced the themes of moral and legal permissibility in the context of big data in an “online world.” He explored the potential advantages and disadvantages of big data, specifically highlighting three trends that conjure up the feared tipping point: trends in business society, trends in civil society, and the effect on human freedom and self-determination. The first trend concerns the workforce in the digital age and the attack on the middle class. Dabrock argued that in our current day and age, the future of the workforce seems more uncertain than ever; two-thirds of European jobs are threatened by machine learning, the most in danger being white collar jobs. Current trends in civil society comprised the second fear that Dabrock mentioned, noting that big data affects democracy, civil society, and the rule of law. The feeling of separation from the cultural and economic mainstream has broader implications for the middle class, potentially increasing isolation from the state, media, and politics and the loss of the notion of a “common good.” The third trend concerns the concepts of freedom and self-determination, both of which are threatened by technology and big data utilization, as in the Chinese social credit system.

After highlighting these three major trends, Dabrock advocated for the approach of the German Ethics Council concerning big data protection. He called for a united effort between society, individuals, and government to increase data sovereignty by reshaping informational freedom. The Ethics Council advocates for a shift in data protection/security law from an input to an output oriented approach, thereby requiring a concerted effort in promoting a strong civil society, new technical procedures, improved legal regulation, and lifelong education and development with a focus on learning how to deal with ambiguities in life.

The lecture was followed by a series of questions covering a variety of topics, including different beliefs regarding privacy in the United States and Germany. While Germans generally seem more concerned about privacy issues than most American citizens, Dabrock noted, he also mentioned that the tech companies here in the US appear to be following suit with privacy regulations led by European countries.