UK government plans ethics council to guide big data researchers

28 Apr 2016 | News
Response to committee report agrees on need for new ethical framework. London’s Alan Turing Institute suggested as home for the expert body

The UK government has accepted a recommendation to create a council of data science ethics to help address complex challenges, including health monitoring and autonomous vehicles.

The ethical body, which would be similar to those in medicine and academia, follows a recommendation in a report on big data published by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in February in which the government was told to address “well founded” public concern about privacy and security.

The committee based its recommendations on submissions from 81 organisations, including Alzheimer’s Research UK, Barclays Bank, a number of government departments, and IT suppliers EMC, Microsoft and SAP, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, home of the UK’s leading genome sequencing centre.

“We need to give data scientists the confidence to innovate with new data and tools, but also to ensure that data science is conducted in an appropriate way,” the government said in its response to the report.

It is suggested the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science, will house the new body. 

Nicola Blackwood, chair of the committee, welcomed the decision. "Big data has enormous potential to improve public services and business productivity, but there are also justified privacy concerns when personal data is used in new applications, services and research. Getting the balance between the benefits and the risks right is vital,” she said.

While there is nothing particularly new about the analytics conducted in big data and concerns over handling sensitive information, the scale and ease with which it can all be done today changes the ethical framework of data analysis.

Researchers are expected to gain 'informed consent' and provide assurances concerning privacy, confidentiality and anonymity when using data for studies. However as there is more public data available online that can be easily ‘scraped’ and ‘mined’ the ethical situation has become more complex.

Regulators are starting to realise that questions around large sets of data requires greater guidance. The US already has its own council addressing these issues since 2014.

“I am pretty sure that more European countries will consider creating such boards,” said Carlo Piltz, a privacy lawyer with German law firm JBB Rechtsanwälte.

Ethicists will also be needed to help navigate the thorny issues presented by new technologies, Piltz said. “From my point of view, the discussion on ethical supervision will gain momentum in light of the emerging market of robotics and [driverless] cars.”

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