Government agencies must consider ethics of data use, and not just their own

By Stephen Easton

Thursday July 13, 2017

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Government agencies have a higher ethical obligation than other organisations because they exercise the unique powers of the state, ethics expert Simon Longstaff argued at yesterday’s Data+Privacy conference in Sydney.

When it comes to big data, Longstaff said people working for any kind of organisation should use their “moral imagination” — a kind of empathy — to put aside their employer’s objectives and honestly consider what a regular person might think about what they are doing with data analytics.

This kind of ethical rather than compliance-focused approach can help agencies mitigate unintended but nonetheless foreseeable negative outcomes of how they collect, store and utilise data themselves. Perhaps public servants should also consider the ethical implications of what other organisations might do with data they get from government.

One very interesting example of this came up right at the end of a panel discussion featuring Longstaff and Peter Cullen from the Information Accountability Foundation, alongside Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman.

Suzanne Connelly, director of communications and publishing at the Victorian University Admissions Centre, observed that most of the discussion had centered on the private sector and asked the panel whether they thought ethical data stewardship was being taken up by government. “Obviously not” was Longstaff’s reply, based on an eyebrow-raising anecdote Connelly used to preface her question.

“A lot of data that’s collected by the tertiary admissions centres across Australia is made available to go on to various government departments for a variety of reasons,” she cautiously explained.

“But recently — two years in a row, I’ve been at conferences where [it has been revealed] that data is then being provided to another company who are now looking to use very detailed information about socioeconomic background and a whole range of things to create platforms whereby young people can go in and plug in all their data and it tells them the likelihood of their ability to continue at university.”

Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, especially if they are the first in their family to take on tertiary education, are more likely to drop out than middle-class peers. The strong implication was that here was an application of government data to essentially tell kids, based on their own background, whether they should bother applying.

Connelly explained the admissions centres across the country like VTAC are required to provide the data to “the government” — it wasn’t clear whether federal or state — which then provides it to the unnamed company.

She said educators were generally “appalled” by the company’s talk of apps where school kids would type in their own details and be told if they were likely to do well at university or not, based on their information about their socioeconomic background and their parents. Much of the audience groaned loudly at this.

Unfortunately the details were scant and the conversation — probably the most interesting example of the day — was cut off very rapidly for the morning tea break. But Longstaff said he suspected “government, in this case as in many, has acted without any thought about the ethical dimension at all”.

“There would have been somebody who came up with a good idea; it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Longstaff said. “Most things where you go wrong in ethics are not because people are wicked but because, when you ask them why did they do it, they say, ‘Oh everybody was doing it. That’s just the way we used to do things around here.’

“And this causes havoc in the world, so I reckon you’ve just given a perfect case study for why governments need to be as strenuously engaged in this as anyone else.”

Longstaff suggested that once the company revealed plans that didn’t sit well with most educators, someone from one of the government agencies involved should have investigated whether the data’s use could be further restricted.

The kind of data Connelly referred to is generally taken by more responsible researchers, like those from the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education at the University of Newcastle, as a reason to provide more support and encouragement to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

For example, the CEEHE has worked with web designers and user-centred design experts to build a helpful careers website aimed at high school students, and its research generally looks at the real-life reasons behind the statistics. About half of Newcastle uni students are the first in their family to attend, and the university carefully uses data to target support programs to students based on indicators like whether they fail to use the library or log in to the online learning system.

Big data offers fantastic possibilities that excite private businesses, nonprofit groups, academics and government agencies alike, and people who raise issues around privacy and ethics are often seen as the party pooper.

However it is interesting that when a particular use of data is seen as creepy or invasive or just plain wrong-headed by a large section of the community, the organisation behind it almost invariably expresses genuine shock that anyone could see a problem. But people are people, and it is not impossible to take off your employee’s hat for a moment and think whether your employer’s perspective would hold water from an outsider’s view.

Minimum compliance with regulations does not guarantee a particular use of data analytics won’t be met with a negative reaction, so some organisations are looking to establish ethical standards for data governance. One private sector focused example is a draft code of conduct put forward by the relatively new organisation Data Governance Australia, and Cullen’s organisation also works on these issues.

This was the focus of the morning’s discussion at yesterday’s conference, hosted by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner off the back of the two-day Asia-Pacific Privacy Authorities forum. At the same time, Data Governance Australia chair Graeme Samuel was speaking to the National Press Club. He suggested a data governance code of conduct that was voluntarily adhered to by most of the private sector could be in place a lot quicker than any new regulations, and if it was successful, members of the public might start asking why government agencies don’t choose to abide by it as well.

Information and privacy commissioner Tim Pilgrim said he wanted the Australian Public Service to become the national leader in data privacy, and that the new APS privacy code, which is out for consultation at the moment, would help it get there. The APS has a long way to go to get there, in the eyes of the average citizen.

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Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen
4 years ago

The requirement for ‘ethics approval’ has been such an unmitigated disaster where it’s been applied that it’s a mercy that it’s not applied in full force to governments. Of course that doesn’t mean that governments should not behave ethically with data or in all their activities. But a bureaucratic ‘ethics committee’ approach never fails to degrade into an arse covering exercise which crushes everything else.

So ‘ethics’ has been the cover for such marvels as:
* hounding one of Australia’s finest economists Paul Frijters out of the country – because showing us that Brisbane bus drivers confer far more casual favours on you if you’re not dark skinned was apparently not ‘ethical’
* The Australian Centre for Social Innovation being unable to get the effects of its early intervention program for struggling families on their children evaluated because it would be too hard to get ethics approval and
* Throwing a patient in the middle of an experimental chemotherapy program out of Canberra Hospital as outlined in this post.

An alternative is to have a much more informal process of users deliberating on ethics as I proposed here.

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