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A Harold K. Schilling Memorial Lecture: Big Data, Ethics, and Philosophy

Daniel Susser, assistant professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, will discuss ethical and political interventions in distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable uses of information that is collected about each of us.
When Nov 10, 2016
from 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM
Where Foster Auditorium, 102 Paterno Library, University Park, PA 16802
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About the Lecture

Daniel SusserA trend has emerged in discussions about privacy, surveillance, and the ethics of big data, wherein a distinction is made between the collection of information about people and the uses to which that information is put. The idea is that the cat is already out of the bag, so to speak, with regard to collection: an incredible amount of information is collected about each of us by a large and rapidly growing number of parties for a wide variety of reasons, both good and bad, and there is no stopping it. What’s more, people don’t seem to mind it all that much; they seem perfectly willing to make information about themselves available to governments and corporations in exchange for security, convenience, and the digital trappings of modern life. On this theory, regulating information collection is a lost cause. Where hope for meaningful ethical and political interventions remains is in distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable uses of information. Using the information that has been collected about us to develop new medical treatments, for instance, is fine, but using it to discriminate against those with chronic illnesses is not. We can’t stop the flow of information about us, but we can prohibit using that information to further unethical or unjust ends. In this paper I argue that despite its intuitive appeal the collection/use distinction is untenable. For the quantity of information being used can alter the quality of its application. Uses deemed ethically or politically acceptable can become unacceptable simply by virtue of the fact that they incorporate more information. Or put another way, shifts in collection practices can change the nature of use practices. To illustrate this I look to a number of examples, from targeted behavioral advertising to risk allocation in the insurance industry to the narratives used in law enforcement and criminal prosecution. Each of these cases involves a use of information which is morally acceptable when the amount of information collected about people is limited, but is unacceptable if collection is left unchecked and grows sufficiently large.

This is part of the Harold K. Schilling Memorial Lecture.

This event is approved for SARI@PSU participation credit.

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About the Speaker

Daniel Susser is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University. In 2015-16 he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Information Law Institute at New York University’s School of Law, a member of the Institute's Privacy Research Group, and a visiting scholar in NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. He works in philosophy of technology and science and technology studies, with an emphasis on normative issues in technology. His recent work has focused on privacy, big data, and online identity.

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