Big data: how to minimise risks while maximising benefits for all

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A study published by the EESC examines the ethics of Big Data in the EU policy context


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has recently published a study on The ethics of big data carried out by Evodevo, a company based in Italy which specialises in big data, sematic analysis and open source intelligence. The study focuses on the ethical and social implications of big data and examines five actions meant to prevent the imbalance between individuals using digital services and data collectors taking ever bigger proportions as the digital revolution gains momentum.

Big Data is described as huge quantities of extremely complex data that cannot be processed using traditional database management tools or data processing applications. It can bring huge opportunities for both individuals and organisations in terms of personalised services, economic development, scientific advancement, better medical treatments, better informed policy making, prevention of natural disasters and terrorist attacks as well as increased road safety, to name just a few. However, as a large proportion of big data is made up of personal data, it also involves major risks for individuals in terms of data security and breaches of privacy, confidentiality, transparency, control over identity, surveillance, and so on.

Consumers are largely unaware of these dangers and often surrender personal information (for instance when creating online accounts or using social media) without really knowing how it will be used, for what purposes other than originally authorised, by whom (will it be passed on to third parties?) and for how long. Nor are they conscious of its value, which is the real fuel of many Internet services. Indeed, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has pointed out that free online services are ‘paid for’ using personal data, which in 2014 was valued at over 300 billion EUR and forecast to treble by 2020. For this reason, Big Data is sometimes dubbed as the "new oil" and like oil should be traded by equally well-informed parties.

What can be done to establish a more balanced relationship between digital service users and providers? The EESC study has tested 5 actions to take at EU level:

1) A European web portal where citizens can log in and have access to information as to what personal data they have given in exchange for what services. Companies would join on a voluntary basis but, if properly promoted at European level, such portal could foster competition for consumer trust;

2) A European certification system along the lines of ISO to help digital service users identify virtuous companies applying ethical personal data protection practices. Although voluntary, membership could be encouraged with incentives, for examples by making it a criterion to bid for public procurement.

3) A data management statement resembling sustainability balance sheets to show how companies are meeting European standards for data protection and what efforts they are making to go even beyond what is legally required of them.

4) A European E-health database collecting the wealth of health information European citizens provide to healthcare institutions when receiving treatment and making it available, in different formats, to hospitals, universities and research centres, individuals themselves (using it as personal data storage), and for use as aggregated, anonymised Open Data. Citizens would give specific consent and data users would apply for permission to use and be personally liable for misuse. This would lead to better health care, increased possibilities for research and the development of better drugs, hospital treatments, more accurate statistics, etc., and, in the long run, a healthier population and a less expensive healthcare system.

5) Digital education to big data. Education from primary school up to university to raise awareness as to the possible ramifications of big data and how to prevent excessive exposure of personal information. Integration of an ethical approach in university degrees that train data scientists and similar professional profiles.

In the second part of the study the research team sought feedback on the proposed balancing actions through surveys and interviews with key stakeholders. The resulting analysis showed that most players are looking towards concrete solutions to make the most of Big Data without sacrificing human fundamental rights. One of the recurrent ideas recognised in literature and by almost all the interviewees was the need to empower people and raise the general understanding of the dynamics, interests and values affected by the use of personal data. Discussions with experts also made it clear that investment in education and awareness-raising represents the core element that would enable other policies because it generates a bottom-up demand for transparency and fairness emerging directly from citizens. This demand from citizens and consumers cannot be disregarded by the data-driven market.

The study was presented at the European Economic and Social Committee on 15 March and discussed with an audience of policy makers and other key players including Claire Gayrel, legal officer at the European Data Protection Supervisor, Yvo Volman, head of the Data Policy and Innovation at DG CONNECT, Andreas Ebert, European technology officer at Microsoft and Maurizio Salvi, senior policy analyst on the governance of science and new technologies at the Joint Research Centre.

Pierre-Jean Coulon, President of the EESC section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure, and the Information Society (TEN), which commissioned the study, said: "Digital services have become so pervasive that most of us can no longer conceive their lives without them. It is therefore essential to enable European citizens to make the most of them without giving up the rights and protection they have been enjoying in more traditional areas. The EESC intends to play an active role in creating the conditions for this to happen and with this study joins the debate between the main European players to shape the future framework for Big Data."

The study is available in English and French at:



The ethics of Big Data: Balancing economic benefits and ethical questions of Big Data in the EU policy context