Some time ago, I mused about a notion of “data ethics,” in a set of posts that was focused most on the obligations data collectors and data analysts had to the persons who data they were handling. Most of principles that I discussed had to do with protection of the privacy of individuals whose data were being collected and assurances that no individual harm could come directly from their provision of personal data.
This post takes a different perspective on personal data. It ruminates on the question of what obligations do residents of a society have to provide data to produce statistical information for common good purposes.
Most countries of the world have some system of institutions that collect data from individuals, aggregate them to produce statistical summaries, in order to inform the populace about its own characteristics. These generally inform about the welfare of the national population and various subgroups. For example, they describe the income distribution of households, educational achievements across subgroups, labor force participation, incarceration rates, agricultural production levels, cost of living changes, and a host of different attributes.
These basic indicators collectively provide the nation with a sense of how it’s doing. They inform us how the benefits of the society are shared across different subgroups. By comparing the same indicators over time, the country can judge whether things are getting better or getting worse.
Indeed, such indicators are a foundational component of a democracy. They help the people judge whether the performance of elected officials merits the continuation of their service or whether the country needs new leadership.
In these days of data breeches, we are reminded nearly daily of misuse of personal data to harm individuals, profiteering from personal data without full consent of those who supplied the data, and numerous other events that heighten our concerns about personal privacy. One is tempted to react to these events by avoiding sharing any personal data with anyone, as a way to maximize one’s own privacy protections.
However, obviously, none of the statistical indicators that the democracy needs to guide decisions of residents would be available to the nation if individuals chose not to agree to supply their personal data for such statistical purposes.
So, in parallel with our discussions about protecting our own privacy, I’d like to see us all engage in a discussion about what civic obligations we have to contribute to common good statistical indicators. When asked by a government statistical agency to participate in a survey that produces such statistical indicators, for what reasons to people frame the request as an unwarranted intrusion into their private lives? In what way, can such requests be viewed as a chance for public service to the common good?