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Cover image of Ethics of Big Data


Title: Ethics of Big Data

Author: Kord Davis (with Doug Patterson)

Publisher: O'Reilly Media

Copyright: 2012

ISBN13: 978-1-449-31179-7

Length: 64

Price: $19.99

Rating: 90%

I am a long-time O'Reilly author. The company's publicity department sent me a review copy of this book.

Reed College, a Portland, Oregon university known for its free-thinking students, produces far more than its share of philosophy majors. Author Kord Davis, a Reed philosophy grad, grew up loving electronics. I had a 75 in One electronics kit like the one he mentions in his preface, but I kept wearing out the batteries by making the siren. After my dad stopped supplying me with 9-volts, I moved on to other things. Davis maintained his interest in electronics and became a Radioman in the United States Coast Guard for five years.

After he left the Coast Guard, Davis earned his philosophy degree from Reed and became a work group facilitator, process engineer, and consultant. Part of his consulting work addresses corporate ethics and policies, which can be a difficult field to work in. As he notes at the start of Ethics of Big Data, philosophy and business don't always get along well. He also acknowledges that ethics is a loaded term, with different meanings depending on an individual's upbringing, culture, and intentions.

Ethics of Big Data is a short book, running just 64 pages of primary text, but Davis manages to fit quite a bit of information into this compact volume. In the first part of the book, he analyzes the privacy policies posted on the Fortune 50's company web sites in terms of four dimensions: identity, privacy, ownership, reputation. Identifying individuals by combining data from multiple sources allows information aggregators to generate deep insights into an individual's life. For example, you can identify approximately 70% of U.S. citizens if all you know is their birthdate, gender, and zip code. Then, by combining web and consumer data with public information, you can learn quite a bit about a person. European and Canadian privacy laws limit what private companies can do with personally identifiable information much more than equivalent U.S. laws, but even there the practical ability to generate knowledge about people can outstrip legal protections.

Interestingly, Davis notes that none of the Fortune 50 companies' privacy policies addressed the issue of reputation. I'm not surprised, given the sensitive and volatile nature of the subject. For some of my friends, knowing I made a trip to Wal-Mart would be grounds to cancel dinner plans. For others, discovering that I support a liberal political cause might lead them to unfriend me on Facebook. The European Parliament made a ham-handed attempt to address this and other data collection issues by proposing a "right to be forgotten", which would require data collectors to, upon request, remove all information about an individual from their records. As strong a privacy advocate as I am, I can't imagine the chaos that would ensue if such a policy were to be implemented as proposed.

Toward the end of Ethics of Big Data, Davis makes two points that justify the price of the book by themselves. The first point is that organizations have to identify what they're actually doing, not what their business plan and process model says they're doing. It seems obvious, but large companies often lose track of how their employees have, to be kind, adapted policies and procedures to get work done. The second point is that Davis believes developing and articulating values can happen equally well in workshops or hallway conversations. Any time a person who makes a living leading meetings and giving seminars tells you that you can benefit from casual conversations in the hall or over lunch, you should listen.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at


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