Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Only a few years ago, the idea that companies could use powerful data technologies to disrupt democracy would have seemed laughable to most, a plotline from a Cold War espionage movie. And the idea that the American system would be compromised enough to allow outside meddling with the most basic of its democratic functions — the election of its leaders — would have seemed even more absurd.

Today we know that this is not fiction but fact. It is a secret so open that even its perpetrators seem half-hearted about hiding it.

“Data drives all that we do.” That is the motto emblazoned on the website of Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm that was employed by the Trump campaign to influence voters and that is now under scrutiny for its unauthorised harvesting of data from at least 50 million social media users.

That such threats are now possible is due in part to the fact that our society lacks an information ethics adequate to its deepening dependence on data. Where politics is driven by data, we need an ethic to guide that data. But in our rush to deliver on the promises of Big Data, we have not sought one.

Adequate ethics of data for today would include not only regulatory policy and statutory law governing matters like personal data privacy and implicit bias in algorithms, they would also include a set of cultural expectations, fortified by extensive education in schools and colleges, requiring us to think about data technologies as we build them, not after they have already profiled, categorised and otherwise informationalised millions of people.

Students who will later turn their talents to the great challenges of data science would also be trained to consider the ethical design and use of the technologies they will someday unleash.

Clearly, we are not there. High schoolers today may aspire to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, but how many dream of designing ethical data technologies? Who would their role models even be? Executives at Facebook, Twitter and Amazon are among our celebrities today. But how many data ethics advocates can the typical social media user name?

Reactive approach

Our approach to the ethics of data is wholly reactive. Investigations are conducted and apologies are extracted only after damage has been done (and only in some instances). Zuckerberg seemed to take a positive step, when he vowed to take action to better protect Facebook’s user data.

What we need is for ethics of data to be engineered right into the information skyscrapers being built today. We need data ethics by design. Any good building must comply with a complex array of codes, standards and detailed studies of patterns of use by its eventual inhabitants. It is not Zuckerberg’s fault that our society has given him a free pass (and a net worth of $67 billion or Dh246.1 billion) for inventing his platform first and asking only later what its social consequences might be.

It is all of our faults. Thus, however successful Zuckerberg will be in making amends, he will assuredly do almost nothing to prevent the next wunderkind from coming along and building the next killer app that will unleash who knows what before anybody even has a chance to notice.

The challenge of designing ethics into data technologies is formidable. This is in part because it requires overcoming a century-long ethos of data science: Develop first, question later. Datafication first, regulation afterward. A glimpse at the history of data science shows as much. The stakes of those wartime decisions were particularly stark, but the aftermath of those psychometric instruments is even more unsettling. As the century progressed, such tests — IQ tests, college placement exams, predictive behavioural assessments — would affect the lives of millions of people.

Schoolchildren who may have once or twice acted out in such a way as to prompt a psychometric evaluation could find themselves labelled, setting them on an inescapable track through the education system.

For the past 100 years we have been chasing visions of data with a singular passion. Many of the best minds of each new generation have devoted themselves to delivering on the inspired data science promises of their day: intelligence testing, building the computer, cracking the genetic code, creating the internet and now this. We have in the course of a single century built an entire society, economy and culture that runs on information. Yet we have hardly begun to engineer data ethics appropriate for our extraordinary information carnival.

If we do not do so soon, data will drive democracy, and we may well lose our chance to do anything about it.

Colin Koopman is one of America’s leading thinkers. He is an author and professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon. His works include ‘Genealogy as Critique’ and ‘Pragmatism as Transition’.