Study on the ethics of Big Data – balancing economic benefits and ethical questions of Big Data in EU policy context


Recent progress in digital technologies and services has led to an increasingly complex collection and processing of data, which has the potential to revolutionise commercial, scientific and social processes by providing rapid and comprehensive data-driven support for decision-making.  The "Big Data" phenomenon is growing rapidly, as it holds enormous potential in various fields, ranging from health, food security, and climate and resource efficiency to energy, intelligent transport systems and smart cities.

Big Data already affects many facets of contemporary life and has the potential to alter governance, the economy, and the very structures of society. With the publication of the Digital Single Market (DSM) Strategy for Europe in May 2015, the European Commission has acknowledged that generating value at the different stages of the data value chain will be at the centre of the future knowledge economy. While the European Commission approach to Big Data is focused on a drive for economic growth and increased competitiveness, the EESC has a more nuanced view and would like to explore the ethical dimensions of Big Data and how to maximise the benefits of Big Data technologies and business models while preserving the fundamental rights of individuals including the right to privacy.

This study will aim to provide the EESC with a detailed perspective on the ethics of Big Data in Europe, addressing issues such as privacy threats, surveillance, disclosure, profiling and discrimination. The main objective is to find out how to balance the human values that are fundamental for the European civil society, like privacy, confidentiality, transparency, identity and free choice with the compelling uses of big data for economic gains. How can European societies avoid the risk of abandoning these values for the sake of innovation, comfort, expediency and economic growth?

A secondary objective of this study will be to analyse any inclusion concerns that may arise in the world of Big Data. Certain segments of society have no digital traces or live in uncaptured environments (e.g. less sensors). They might be left out of data collection procedures and their data and interests may not be taken into account, making them possible victims of discrimination. The EESC would like to know how to address these inclusion concerns and if there are any examples of mitigation strategies/tools. These are important questions to consider when examining the impacts of Big Data use on society, as well as when developing ethical frameworks for the use of data in different sectors.

Key research questions:

  • What are the main ethical issues related to privacy, confidentiality, transparency and identity?
  • How can the benefits of Big Data technologies and business models be maximised while preserving the fundamental rights of individuals, including the right to privacy?
  • Who is participating in data collection through access and analysis? Who is represented within Big Data and who is not? What implications does this have for an “ethical” society?
  • Does Big Data raise new questions and issues that cannot be answered by existing ethical and legal frameworks?

Key outputs:

  1. A collection of views of experts from regulators, government, commercial data firms and consumer privacy organisations.
  2. A review of opinions of the European Data Protection Supervisor concerning Big Data
  3. A list of case studies outlining examples of how Big Data is used in at least 2 European countries; an analysis of any ethical issues that may arise from these case studies
  4. A review of existing and relevant literature on Big Data ethics


The study should be carried out in English.

Indicative calendar

  1. Launch of the invitation to tender: estimated timing is 6/06/2016
  2. Deadline for submission of offers: 2 calendar weeks following the launching of invitation to tender
  3. Contract award:  estimated timing is  July 2016


Send your expression of interest to participate or request for information to the following mail box (before the deadline mentioned below)


Friday, June 3, 2016 - 12:00