Ethics of Data Mining

Ethics of Data Mining

Jack Cook (Rochester Institute of Technology, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 6
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-010-3.ch121
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Decision makers thirst for answers to questions. As more data is gathered, more questions are posed: Which customers are most likely to respond positively to a marketing campaign, product price change or new product offering? How will the competition react? Which loan applicants are most likely or least likely to default? The ability to raise questions, even those that currently cannot be answered, is a characteristic of a good decision maker. Decision makers no longer have the luxury of making decisions based on gut feeling or intuition. Decisions must be supported by data; otherwise decision makers can expect to be questioned by stockholders, reporters, or attorneys in a court of law. Data mining can support and often direct decision makers in ways that are often counterintuitive. Although data mining can provide considerable insight, there is an “inherent risk that what might be inferred may be private or ethically sensitive” (Fule & Roddick, 2004, p. 159). Extensively used in telecommunications, financial services, insurance, customer relationship management (CRM), retail, and utilities, data mining more recently has been used by educators, government officials, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement. It helps alleviate data overload by extracting value from volume. However, data analysis is not data mining. Query-driven data analysis, perhaps guided by an idea or hypothesis, that tries to deduce a pattern, verify a hypothesis, or generalize information in order to predict future behavior is not data mining (Edelstein, 2003). It may be a first step, but it is not data mining. Data mining is the process of discovering and interpreting meaningful, previously hidden patterns in the data. It is not a set of descriptive statistics. Description is not prediction. Furthermore, the focus of data mining is on the process, not a particular technique, used to make reasonably accurate predictions. It is iterative in nature and generically can be decomposed into the following steps: (1) data acquisition through translating, cleansing, and transforming data from numerous sources, (2) goal setting or hypotheses construction, (3) data mining, and (4) validating or interpreting results. The process of generating rules through a mining operation becomes an ethical issue, when the results are used in decision-making processes that affect people or when mining customer data unwittingly compromises the privacy of those customers (Fule & Roddick, 2004). Data miners and decision makers must contemplate ethical issues before encountering one. Otherwise, they risk not identifying when a dilemma exists or making poor choices, since all aspects of the problem have not been identified.
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Technology has moral properties, just as it has political properties (Brey 2000; Feenberg, 1999; Sclove, 1995; Winner, 1980). Winner (1980) argues that technological artifacts and systems function like laws, serving as frameworks for public order by constraining individuals’ behaviors. Sclove (1995) argues that technologies possess the same kinds of structural effects as other elements of society, such as laws, dominant political and economic institutions, and systems of cultural beliefs. Data mining, being a technological artifact, is worthy of study from an ethical perspective due to its increasing importance in decision making, both in the private and public sectors. Computer systems often function less as background technologies and more as active constituents in shaping society (Brey, 2000). Data mining is no exception. Higher integration of data mining capabilities within applications ensures that this particular technological artifact will increasingly shape public and private policies.

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