What Exactly Is Data Ethics?

Data ethics is currently at the forefront of debate in the media. Ethics relates to the moral problems of collecting data: recording, storing, sharing and the use of data. Data ethics is about using data in a way that users’ human rights are not violated, and using it in a fair way.

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Over two quintillion new pieces of data are created every day, with companies using it to target them based upon how they live, websites they visit, where they travel and what they eat. The huge amount of data that is being analysed by companies is sometimes referred to as the data revolution. Some companies use this data to try to improve society and creative innovations such as using machines to research cancer and using data that is collected to develop smart cities.


There is a fine balance for data scientists between using data ethically and using it effectively. Whilst data must be stored and analysed in an appropriate manner, it must be analysed robustly in order to achieve the purpose of obtaining it in the first place. This is where some companies fail – for example, the NHS care.data program, which was closed in 2016. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsta.2016.0360 discusses this topic in depth.

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Data Uses

Whilst most users are sceptical about creating data and how it will be used, there are some organisations that are using the data to improve society. Many users fear that by adding their data to databases used for analysis they will be bombarded with junk emails and telephone calls. As a result of this, the ideas of fairness, privacy and representation have evolved in the context of online activity. For example, some software designed for facial recognition fails to identify users with skin tones that are dark. Other more public issues have arisen with Facebook as an example: data was misused during elections. Cheltenham IT support can advise you on such matters: see https://reformit.co.uk/.

Responsible Data Sharing

A code of practice for all data scientists has been suggested – all scientists should sign an agreed code of conduct to ensure they are acting ethically with the data they obtain. A number of volunteers within universities, local and national government agencies and other organisations worked together to develop the code. This is an ongoing process and has currently seen 75 versions drafted so far.