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But in actuality, the relative newness – and rapid expansion – of big data-based research presents us with what the computer ethicist James Moor would call "conceptual muddles": the inability to properly conceptualize the ethical values and dilemmas at play in a new technological context.Consider the privacy concerns with big data research and data releases like those described above.
In the words of the Ok Cupid researchers, "releasing this dataset merely presents [the user profile data] is a more useful form." Yet, in reality, the social media platforms frequently used for big data research purposes represent a complex environment of socio-technical interactions, where users fail to fully understand how their social activities might be regularly monitored, harvested, and shared with third parties, where privacy policies and terms of service are not fully understood and change frequently, and where the technical infrastructures and interfaces are designed to make restricting information flows and protecting one’s privacy difficult.
Spark Match debuted as a beta experiment of allowing registered users who had taken the Match Test to search for and contact each other based on their Match Test types.
The popularity of Spark Match took off and it was launched as its own site, later renamed Ok Cupid.
Six years later, with big data again promising a new way of "doing social science," this warning remains all too true.
The Ok Cupid data release reminds us that the ethical, research, and regulatory communities must engage in collaborative, dedicated, and multi-prong efforts to address the conceptual muddles present in big data research, reframe the ethical dilemmas inherent in such research projects, expand educational and outreach efforts, and develop policy guidance focused on the unique challenges of big data research ethics.