Several months ago, Israel’s National Institute for Health Policy held an international workshop on the ethical dimensions of using big data in the formulation of public health policy. Israel, which offers its citizens universal healthcare, has four main healthcare providers. The digitalization of health services among all providers has created a vast big data database regarding the health, and health behaviors, of Israelis. Using this data, the Israeli government can compare the quality of health services across towns and cities; identify factors contributing to non-communicable diseases; identify possible links between social class and the prevalence of cancer; examine links between pre-natal care and the risk of suffering from mental disorders; evaluate the long term outcomes of health interventions and compare the cost of health care based on age, sex and other factors.
However, the question that immediately follows is- whose data is it anyway? Does the data belong to the health care providers, in which case, they should pay for its safekeeping and its analysis? Or perhaps the data belongs to the state of Israel as all healthcare providers are financed by the state? In this case, perhaps Israel can sell some data to bio-tech companies. Finally, perhaps the data belongs to the citizens of Israel. In this case, should they be made aware of how the data is used, by whom and to what end?
The ethical dimension of big data becomes obvious when examined through the prism of healthcare. It is in the realm of health that individuals have a recognized right to privacy, and a personal expectation that their information will be kept from prying eyes. Indeed leaking private medical information is a felony in many countries. The use of big data in the healthcare sector has subsequently been framed as an ethical issue. The same cannot be said for the realm of diplomacy where big data is framed through it potential.
How Much Data is Big Data?
The term big data has for some time been used by diplomats and diplomatic institutions. What characterizes the current diplomatic zeitgeist is the belief that big data is a “game changer”. MFAs would like to use big data to analyze consular crises as they occur, to map popular sentiments and tailor public diplomacy activities in accordance, to anticipate political crises in foreign countries; to analyze press coverage of issues both domestically and abroad, to map networks of online influencers and to combat online extremism. As Tom
This zeitgeist was best captured by Fletcher when he asked –would we have predicted the fall of Mubarak if we had followed the hashtag Tahrir? The “game changer” belief has recently led some MFAs to establish units that write computer code, develop algorithms and actually analyze big data sets. Indeed diplomats and MFAs often invite commercial companies to their workshops so as to learn how to best maximize big data. However, these workshops do not necessarily focus on ethical issues nor are MFA digital unites restricted by ethical guidelines. In general, the ethical dimension of big data use has yet to come to the foray among digital diplomats. Yet this discussion is of paramount importance given the amount of data now in the hands of online companies.
Studies suggest that Facebook, one the of the most sophisticated surveillance systems in the world, knows our political affiliation even if we have never declared it, knows our sexual orientation even if we have never professed it and can predict how we will vote even if we have never discussed it. It knows who we love, what we love, how we travel, when we travel and where we travel. It can predict how reliable we are by the amount of times we run out of battery. It can estimate our ability to form relationships and can even deduce if we are in a relationship or have just ended one. Even after we have left Facebook, it still monitors other sites we visit and analyzes the information we share online. The precision and scope of Facebook’s profiling ability is astounding.
Of course Facebook is not alone. Once one uses Google to search for information, Amazon to buy products and Uber for transportation he is contributing more data to more actors. Google is especially pervasive as it reads all of our emails and, for Android users, all their text messages. The scope of big data pertaining to a given individual, or citizen, is thus multiplied by infinity.
The question that follows is should governments be concerned about the amount of information pertaining to their citizens now available online? Information which is sold to the highest bidder, information that can find its way to malicious parties and information that can even finds its way to foreign governments? As was recently reported, a Russian company published Facebook ads during the US election so as to sway voters against Hillary Clinton. What’s to stop other foreign countries from buying Facebook information about Israeli or French or British citizens in order to profile or target them?
But at an even more basic level, one has to wonder if the nation state does not have an obligation to ensure that citizens’ personal information is adequately protected? To demand that that citizens’ be made aware of what is gathered about them and to limit the range of actors who can access this information? Do citizens not have the right to privacy online, just as they do offline?
There are two important reasons why MFAs have yet to tackle the ethical dimension of big data, and identify their respective role in protecting citizens’ information. First, many MFAs have yet to even ask the question “whose data is it anyway?” They are still marveling at the potential of big data. As long as this central question is not posed, the challenge of big data will not be articulated. Second, MFAs know full well that big data often finds its way to big brother and is tied to struggle against terror. But this in itself should not stop MFAs from reassessing the scope of their portfolio in the digital age.
Data as Oil
The term digital diplomacy should no longer be limited to the application of digital technologies in the conduct of diplomacy. Rather, it should also include a host of issues pertaining to digital policy making and interactions between states and digital powers, including issues of digital sovereignty and “whose data is it anyway”.
Some MFAs have appointed Ambassadors to Silicon Valley. This might be one step in the right direction. But there is much work that lies ahead. To tackle contemporary issues, MFAs and their directors must begin to formulate digital foreign policies, conceptualize digital rights, hold digital multi-lateral consultations and work opposite digital powers, such as Facebook and Google, to protect their citizens’ rights.
The Economist recently argued that big data is the new oil. If that is the case, then Mark Zuckerberg is the new Rockefeller and MFAs will need to curtail some of his power.