The Ethics Problem of Data Integration

Loraine Lawson

It's often true of humankind that we become so engaged in figuring out if we can do something, we forget to ask whether we should-or, at least, to give an honest consideration of how our accomplishments will affect others.


This is true in industry, business, government and, of course, technology.


In my experience, there are two places where the issue will eventually come up: In technology circles and at planning and zoning boards.


I've cover planning and zoning in two states and three counties. It's one of the few places on earth where the issue regularly comes up for adamant, thorough discussion. That's probably because planning and zoning is where someone else's plans for accomplishment-be they a new house, a garbage dump or a 5,000-home gated community-come into direct contact with somebody else's back yard.


In technology, it's less obvious, but it does tend to come up because most of us have read or seen enough sci fi to be afraid of technology. Techies usually assume this is because most people don't really understand technology.


But sometimes, the people who are most afraid are those who truly understand the technology. And when that happens, wouldn't the wisest and best course of action be to stop and consider their concerns?


I think yes-and that's why I'd like you to read what Graham Oakes says about the hazards of data integration.


Oakes writes he has spent most of his life trying to integrate systems. He's an independent IT projects and strategy consultant. He holds a doctorate in geophysics and remote sensing. What's more, he's a chartered engineer and fellow of the British Computer Society.


In other words, he's someone who knows about technology.


And yet, he's alarmed about what he sees happening as companies integrate more and more data, creating what IT security expert Bruce Schneier calls "the pollution of the information age" and Oakes calls a possible threat to "the livelihoods of the people that the data describes."


What's the big deal? As Oakes describes it, data integration makes the data more vulnerable by essentially creating a bigger, better target for miscreants:

Data integration also dramatically increases the impact of data losses. Each week brings fresh news of such losses-discs go missing in the post, laptops are left on trains and credit card processors are hacked.

And yet, how much do your data people really know about IT security? For that matter, what do your application developers know about security and how much do they test their code to see if it's easily hacked?


I'm guessing you'd rather not answer those questions. Most companies-particularly those whose main business isn't development-would rather stay silent on that topic.


You know, in all my time at planning and zoning, I seldom saw the neighbors win. The board would hear their concerns, and often support them, but based on some minor technicality-because that's all they had available. In the long run, the developers persisted, refined, even sued-and all eventually won because the system wasn't set up to acknowledge what "should" be done, but rather what could be done.


It didn't matter so much when it was one plot here, one plot there-but over time, the effect added up, and things changed in a way that maybe they shouldn't have.


Of course, that's more subjective. You may love mini-malls.


But when it comes to data integration, as the integrated plots add up, so will the impact of a problem. It's all well and good for now-but shouldn't you thoroughly consider the potential problems and act now, before the data breaches start rolling in?


Oakes thinks so. I'm no data expert, but as a consumer, possible customer and individual, I'm inclined to agree.

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