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The ethics surrounding data collection

Updated: Oct 8, 2019



I’ve been talking with a lot of different people - pretty much anyone who will listen – about where to focus my research. One piece of advice I received was to think about things that you’re passionate about, especially the things that make you angry. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve encountered a few stories about data collection that fit that description.


The first was an article about StatsCan trying to get access to private banking data to use in it’s data set then hiring a PR firm to contain reputational damage when the story was made public. The second was about Google hiring a temp agency that targeted marginalized and vulnerable people of colour in order to gather data (photos) to better train facial recognition algorithms.


Both of these stories have a high “WTF” factor.


Should governments and big corporations be allowed to employ these kinds of tactics to gather data?


In the case of StatsCan, they claim they are serving Canadians, they have a mandate to collect this type of data, they have previously accessed sensitive data and in order to do their job, they need to “modernize” their data collection methods. (Marcoux) OK. But, should our private banking data be gathered and used for purposes without our knowledge? There is no transparency or consent which should be core elements of ethical data collection.

Google is apparently trying to make its own data sets better – more inclusive and more representative. However, if these news reports are accurate, the way this data collection exercise has been executed is horribly off base.


How can we do better? What standards should be applied? Who governs how data is collected and by what methods? In academic settings, that’s the job of the research ethics board. Google almost had an ethics board. StatsCan is currently under investigation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. As we rush to collect more data to train AI systems we need to stop and think about how we are impacting people.

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Marcoux, J. (2019, September 28). StatsCan hired PR firm to prevent 'reputational damage' after outcry over plan to gather banking records | CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/statistics-canada-hires-pr-firm-1.5298092

Otis, Ginger Adams, and Nancy Dillon. “Google Using Dubious Tactics to Target People with 'Darker Skin' in Facial Recognition Project: Sources.” Nydailynews.com, 2 Oct. 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-google-darker-skin-tones-facial-recognition-pixel-20191002-5vxpgowknffnvbmy5eg7epsf34-story.html.

Statt, N. (2019, April 5). Google dissolves AI ethics board just one week after forming it. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2019/4/4/18296113/google-ai-ethics-board-ends-controversy-kay-coles-james-heritage-foundation.