New article: “Addressing Conceptual Gaps in Big Data Research Ethics: An Application of Contextual Integrity”

I’m happy to share the (open) publication of a new article “Addressing Conceptual Gaps in Big Data Research Ethics: An Application of Contextual Integrity” in Social Media + Society.

In this article, I revisit the OkCupid data collection and release controversy, where a group of Danish researchers, led by Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, publicly released a dataset of nearly 70,000 users of the online dating site OkCupid, including usernames, age, gender, location, what kind of relationship (or sex) they’re interested in, personality traits, and answers to thousands of profiling questions used by the site. To counter Kirkegaard’s assertion that the “Data is already public” and thus concerns about privacy and ethics are irrelevant, I invoke Helen Nissenbaum’s theory of “privacy as contextual integrity” as a useful heuristic to guide ethical decision-making in big data research projects.

Here is the abstract:

The rise of big data has provided new avenues for researchers to explore, observe, and measure human opinions, activities, and interactions. While scholars, professional societies, and ethical review boards have long-established research ethics frameworks to ensure the rights and welfare of the research subjects are protected, the rapid rise of big data-based research generates new challenges to long-held ethical assumptions and guidelines. This article discloses emerging conceptual gaps in relation to how researchers and ethical review boards think about privacy, anonymity, consent, and harm in the context of big data research. It closes by invoking Nissenbaum’s theory of “privacy as contextual integrity” as a useful heuristic to guide ethical decision-making in big data research projects.

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