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BBC Research & Development: the ethics of personal data

Ian Forrester

Senior Producer, BBC R&D North Lab

We asked a number of smart people, a simple question about what data is personal to them.

Many of us have heard of "Big Data". You may have even heard terms like "linked data".

It all comes across as slightly abstract, like something we can benefit from and then close the door on.

But closing the door and ignoring it, isn't an option. Every month there's another news story of data being lost, stolen or hijacked on a momentous scale.

Like most disruptive technology (data certainly is powering most of the innovation in recent times), there is a positive and negative side to data. On the plus side it can connect us with each other and the world. Miracle cures can be found, data can enrich our lives automating the things we don't have the time to care about. On the negative side, it can be used to watch, judge and profile people.

Its becoming clear that the services we use, connected objects and spaces we inhabit are collecting personal data about ourselves. What they are doing with that data is only one of the questions we at BBC Research & Development asked as part of our series of documentaries about "the ethics of personal data".

In the documentaries industry experts explore the implications of our data rich world through the lenses of the physical internet, personal data, data ownership and data management.

Why the physical internet?

For many people the internet is still an entity which exists in a box, be it a desktop computer or laptop. This notion is very broken, with mobile devices and smart tvs. LG and Samsung  have been accused of using personal data in ways people were not expecting. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (Director of designswarm) makes a good point.

"You could make a good case for technology to be imbedded in everything we know. What kind of technology it is and what does it do, and what purpose does it serve is always the next question"

We wanted to consider a wider context than internet of things, and get our experts thinking about smart homes, cars and cities.

Personal data and privacy?

Fuelled by comments made by the likes of Vint Cerf about privacy being an anomaly and a digital dark age we asked our experts what data is important to them, how their data could be used and why should people care? With data the decisions we make could have lifelong impact. This is something we explored further with questions about education and self-management.

Finally in the "Ownership and Choice" section, we looked at the trend for people to own their own data and actively collect it. Early adopters are not only collecting their own data but also analysing it and quantifying it. You may have come across the "Quantified Self" movement and the devices which surround it, through the trend for "wearables" such as smartwatches and activity trackers. Most of these devices and services have two characteristics. They talk to the "cloud" and come with end user licence agreements (EULAs). These are a bone of contention with many people.

Many of us have experienced what Aleks Krotoski (Social Psychologist) talks about when confronted by a set of terms and conditions around our data:

"It’s a different kind of English. It doesn’t make any sense, people don’t think about it, just click through, just click through, just get to the experience. It’s, it’s an impediment. It’s just in the way."

BBC R&D present these expert views in order to provoke thought and make you consider where you stand. Some of the answers are surprising and may make you reconsider your own views. We have included a video commenting system in the site so you can pin point comments to individual answers.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

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