Big Data Analysis and Terrorism

This paper examines the discussion of the privacy-security debate. Is it a trade off? Things like the Snowden leaks and Guantanamo Bay have further catalysed this debate. Ultimately, this paper concludes that it depends on how one defines ethicality. A focus on government’s ability and tendency to exploit and dress up their actions in ethicality/for the people is also done throughout.

Big Data Analysis and Terrorism

Topic: To what extent is it acceptable from an ethical point of view for governments to use big data analysis in order to identify possible terrorist threats? Which factors determine this?

“Is it alright to cast one Christian to the lions, if it will provide considerable pleasure to many Romans?” (Etzioni 1991, 587)


In today’s society, knowledge is power. In the “network society” we are in now, in which key social structures and activities are organized around electronically processed information networks, big data analysis could essentially control everything (Castelles 2005, 218). Since 9/11, there has been a change. The fear of terrorism has changed society: we are now in an era of information feudalism, where there is an increasing concentration of ownership of information. When information and knowledge is power, it is important to look at the ethical aspect of big data analysis and how far it should go in terms of its use in countering terrorist attacks by governments and other organizations. Big data analysis, as all things, may be used to cause human suffering but also to prevent human suffering. Factors including manipulation, biased analysis, and incorrect data causing dire consequences and fraud, all help determine to what extent it is ethical for governments to use big data analysis to counter terrorism. More attention needs to be given to risk-management in order for big data analysis to continue protecting people from terror, and also helping increase research for disease and other humanitarian goals.

According to Bathla and Midha, big data analysis may be defined as such: “The collection of large and complex data sets that are difficult to process using conventional data processing tools […] coming from social networking sites, scientific experiments, mobile conversations, sensor networks and various other sources” (Bathla and Midha 2015, 1). Big data analysis has been used in multiple ways for the greater good of society in terms of helping with terrorist attacks. By “greater good” I mean by helping protect the citizens, and maintain peace for the overall population. One example of this is the Facebook Safety Check feature. It was activated by using large amounts of data about its users for a humanitarian goal and was able to identify people close to accidents of terrorism or natural disasters (Astel 2015, 4). It was able to “reduce the burden of communications by offering a fast and simple way to reassure large numbers of people at the same time” (Astel 2015, 9).


Big Data Analysis and the Fight Against Terrorism


Big data analysis helps fight the war against terrorism in multiple ways, as it is using the terrorist’s own weapon against them, thus promoting peace and in other words, being used ethically. For example, big data and data analytics are used widely by Israeli military and intelligence agencies to track down enemies of the Israeli State (Engelen 2015, 1). Former head of the Israeli Security Agency’s IT unit Ronen Horowitz agrees, saying that the “flood of unstructured data in the form of video, images, text and speeches” had been “utilized to the Israeli military to track down and kill enemies” (Engelen 2015, 2). He also said: “quite a few dead terrorists are looking at us from the sky owing to Big Data capabilities” (Engelen 2015, 4). The police force now analyze Twitter and text messages as part of their activities, which is called predictive policing. This has been proven to decrease incidences of terrorism but only if we can “minimize the risk of misuse and undesired side effects” (Engelen 2015, 4). This shows how big data analysis can be used towards terrorism by governments in an ethical sense.

By “ethical” I refer to a definition many government-run programs, including the National Science Foundation and the NIH Ethics Program, use. Many government organisations have a similar set of principles of codes and policies for research that they follow. Professor Resnik in the US department of Health and Human Services listed them as such: Honesty, Objectivity, Carefulness, Openness (sharing data), Responsible mentoring and publication, and Human Subjects Protection (Resnik 2011, 2). Factors such as saving lives, deterrence of terrorism and fear, damages of the economy as well as invasion of privacy, betrayal of trust, manipulation of data, fraud, and the possible illegality of the act of collecting the data itself each affect the ethical extent to which big data analysis helps in countering terrorism.


Unethical Uses of Big Data Analysis in Relation to Terrorism


On the contrary, big data analysis may easily be used unethically unintentionally or intentionally. It could also be seen as an infiltration into personal privacy and can be easily manipulated (Tene and Polonetsky 2013, 270). “Like any other type of research, data analytics can cross the threshold of unethical behaviour” in the “surveillance society” we are in today where no one is exempt from scrutiny (Tene and Polonetsky 2013, 256). As Watchdog’s Big Brother UK Warning put it, we are in a “psychologically oppressive world in which individuals are cowed to conforming behavior by the state’s potential panoptic gaze” (BBC 2004). Raw data might not be equal to sensitive data, just as “inaccurate, manipulative or discriminatory conclusions” may be drawn from “perfectly innocuous, accurate data” (Tene and Polonetsky 2013, 270). For example, these are merely possible terrorist attacks, thus the government might be incurring the possibility of multiple costs with the probability of it being a false alarm. Big data analysis is an interpretive process, and it is also subject to error, as the observer may also affect the results in multiple ways. The analytics’ bias and perspective creates bias and may affect results. Perhaps if there is more data given to finding data percentages to the times big data analysis had a success rate and managed to stop potential terrorist attacks in comparison to false terrorist attacks, and then focusing on improving these statistics, this could also be another factor that determines to what extent it is ethical for governments to use big data analysis to identify possible terrorist threats. Ultimately the goal to use big data analysis in the most ethical way is to put more efforts into increasing the effectiveness of big data analysis while minimizing the costs of the process.

Due to the variety of possible consequences big data analysis may lead to, more attention needs to be given to the prevention of these costs. Tene and Polonetsky outline the moral argument for the costs of big data analysis. They argue that the fundamental question is: Who has the right to access big data sets, for what purposes, in what contexts, and with what constraints (Tene and Polonetsky 2013, 272). Without answering these questions properly, there will be and already are irreversible consequences. As all things, there are benefits and costs to big data analysis. We mustn’t just weigh them in comparison to each other, but look at where the line could be drawn. After all, what if it becomes two Christians cast to the lion for the pleasure of many Romans, or three Christians, or more? At what point is it not OK? Who decides? And what if it was for the safety of the Romans (not just for their pleasure), as it is today- for the security of the people from the threat of the Islamic State?


The Line Between Ethical and Unethical


Without big data analysis, organizations such as Anonymous would not be able to fight against ISIS and the Islamic State. The hacktivist group declared war on ISIS and uses big data analysis to counter terrorism. Their biggest operation is currently OpISIS, which began after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Within seventy-two hours after the Paris attacks, it was reported they took down thousands of ISIS-related Twitter accounts (Muller 2015, 1). According to their Facebook page We Are Anonymous, “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” They also tweeted that they took down 5,500 Twitter accounts of #ISIS on the 17th of November. Destroying the terrorists main form of communication which they also use to convince more people to join is a clear example of big data analysis being used for the good of humanity: to protect people from terror. If governments were to use big data analysis in the same way to identify possible terrorist threats by also looking at twitter accounts and so on, it would be using big data analysis in an ethical way no matter to what extent. However, once they go further- once they begin infiltrating other parts of people’s personal lives beyond to counter terrorism or they manipulate or create bias information (unintentionally or not), this is when it is no longer acceptable, from an ethical point of view, to use big data analysis to identify possible terrorist threats.


Minimizing Consequences of Big Data Analysis


Despite the possible consequences of big data analysis, it is undeniable that “every society needs information” (Rahman and Ramos 2013, 114). Governments using big data analysis to protect its citizens is a means to protect the public, not individuals. Researchers are committed to finding information for social desires, for society’s interests, but we must not ignore its misuses. As we are in an information era and society is reliant on big data analysis, we must focus only on how to minimize the costs it can cause. Costs include denying access to smaller/less wealthy users, selling data to other companies and adopting vague privacy agreements (Rahman and Ramos 2013, 114). As long as there is more attention given to minimizing the misuses of big data analysis, it is ethical to use big data analysis to counter terrorism. The general lack of transparency towards supervisory authorities prevents individuals from exercising control over their data (Cuijpers 2015). Facebook states that it is “free and always will be”. This is false, as individuals pay with personal information unknowingly which Facebook then sells (Smith 2013, 2). The General rule in the DDPA is that “data may only be processed fair and lawful” (Cuijpers 2015). Here we must question when is it “fair” and when is it “lawful”? Who decides? These questions must be asked and given more attention to when dealing with the ethical dilemma of big data analysis in terms of countering terrorism. Big data analysis used to counter terrorism is used for humanitarian purposes including protecting the people, but there could be more efforts put into risk-management to minimize consequences. For example, data subjects must be properly informed, big data analysis could be infiltrated into the education system for the general population to have more of an understanding of it, more monitoring of companies holding information, and there could be more analytics to help prevent biases.


The Philosophical Debate of Big Data Analysis


From a communitarianism perspective, it is a battle between the virtues of man versus the virtues of a citizen. Kantian ethics states, “act on the maxim that you wish to have become a universal law” (CSUS 4). Using big data analysis to counter terrorism is not acceptable, ethically speaking, if there is no attention given to who is affected on a global scale, to whom the information is being distributed to, and if there are no efforts being made to minimize costs, such as looking at who is responsible if the analysis is incorrect, etc. Ethical Relativism states as such: “no fixed principles universally apply to any situation that may arise” (Pistilli and Willis 2013, 14). Similarly, there is no single “right” answer for what extent it is acceptable to use big data analysis to counter terrorism, or the debate between transparency and privacy, but by putting in all efforts to minimize the costs, this is perhaps most ethical thing to do for society as a whole.

“Without big data, you are blind and deaf in the middle of a freeway” (Moore 2012). Big data analysis allows us to make sense out of this brave new digital world. It allows us to provide security and to prepare for terrorist attacks; it allows us to use the Islamic State’s own weapon against them. However, it can easily be unethically used: manipulation, fraud, being used by corporations for un-humanitarian purposes (e.g.: ISIS), biased analysis, and a general lack of knowledge by the public about the amount of surveillance they are under. With more attention given to the prevention of these consequences and costs and to acknowledging big data analysis itself in education systems more, this will allow big data analysis to be used at its best and most ethical possible manner. We are in an age of technology but also in an age of terror, and big data analysis benefits us greatly, so long as we are able to harness its powers correctly and in the most ethical way possible.








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