Image of crowd crossing a busy road junction representing the questionable actions by good organizations for the greater good
The Greater Good When Good Organisations Do Questionable Things

The ‘Greater Good’ – When Good Organisations Do Questionable Things

Straying into the realms of moral philosophy is rarely a productive exercise when it comes to analysing the action of corporate entities and government. However, in the matter of data privacy it seems that the concept of the ‘greater good’ is becoming an increasingly important factor when it comes to evaluating whether private data should be shared.

The 19th-century British individualist Auberon Herbert addressed the issue of the “good of the greatest number.” He stated, “There never was invented a more specious and misleading phrase. The Devil was in his most subtle and ingenious mood when he slipped this phrase into the brains of men.”

However, the world has changed since the 19th century – moral absolutes may not be as absolute as they might have been when Herbert wrote his opinion. When it comes to Big Data (and personal data) the question of what is actually for the good of the many as opposed to the individual becomes murkier – it may be that there is simply no right or wrong when it comes to data use, and the answer to what constitutes legitimate data use might be much more nuanced.

Big data

Today we have become increasingly uncomfortable with big government and the threat of monitoring our online actions. Our right to privacy is today more theoretical than it is practical. Increased use of the social media means that our every action is exposed to data mining practices. We know that Facebook, Google, Twitter (and other social media sites), as well as other organisations use our online information and behaviour to increase their analytical capabilities and target their commercial activities. We may not be comfortable, but we accept this as a reality. In fact, in most instances we have given tacit (and more often than not explicit permission – see your user agreement) for that data to be mined and used. In exchange for world class social media and search engine functionality we have sacrificed anonymity to these gatekeepers and custodians in exchange for ‘an enhanced user experience’.

However, would Internet users be more comfortable knowing that big data is being used for more public spirited purposes? Even if it meant that the data was being released to third parties?

For the greater good

There are a number of instances where Big Data has been used to improve the lives of groups of people – or even society as a whole. In late 2013 researchers at Columbia and Stanford Universities published1 an analysis of 82 million online searches which were provided to them by Microsoft. This information was used to analyse drug use. They found that the combination of two drugs – paroxetine, an antidepressant, and pravastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug – caused high blood sugar. Now this information is undoubtable in the best interest of the populace at large, helping physicians better diagnose illness and avoid drug complications. However, it’s just a hop skip and a jump to drug companies using this information in drug advertising in the United States. So what is ‘for the greater good’ becomes what is for the greater good of a commercial entity. Again – most people would say ‘what’s the harm – it’s aggregate information, individual information regarding names, addresses etc. weren’t used, were they?’ Contrary to that belief it’s almost inevitable that levels of information such as age and medical information, along with regional information were used – and that’s coming perilously close to a direct violation of privacy rights.

The FBI and Sentinel

The Federal Bureau of Intelligence – the United States FBI has gone a step further with the Sentinel program which it uses to track suspected criminals and terrorists. There is no doubt that the FBI is also mining social networks, as well as translating foreign language posts into English to get a better idea of what people are up to online. The government Santa, at least in the United States now knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. A clear invasion of privacy – perhaps, but is it for the greater good? Although this may be debatable, it would seem that the consensus would be that that it undoubtedly helps protect the innocent. Whether this analysis of an individual’s online activity or communication is legal or moral is however still a complicated one. The ongoing US Government vs Apple case (see The Recent US v. Apple Case in Context) shows just how complex these privacy issues can be.

Exemptions to the rule of privacy

So we find that there are two types of data that is being used (or sought) one is ‘Big Data’ which used large framesets of data, purportedly without large subsets of personal information, the other is individual data – including the minutia of social media and email usage. Is the unauthorised release of these sorts of data ever a good idea – either morally or legally?

The answer is unequivocally yes. In certain instances, it’s difficult to argue that the release of information should not be classified as being ‘in the greater good’.

The United States Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) was in part passed to ensure the privacy of patient data. Under normal circumstances, each patient retains the right to control who is permitted to know his or her health information a proviso that overrides almost all other concerns.

In the aftermath of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history at an Orlando, Florida nightclub in the early hours of June 16, 2016 President Barack Obama declared a national emergency and the President, along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell made it easier for family and friends to gain quicker access to medical information. It’s clear that in exceptional circumstances, such as when panicked relatives and friends are in line at a hospital the public (or greater) good trumps the right to privacy.

A complex and nuanced issue

So when all is said and done is ‘The Greater Good’ the acid test for the release and use of what could be termed private information? The answer is that circumstances dictate the use of data. There is still a major concern about just who is empowered to make that decision. Should it be within the power of a private organisation such as Microsoft to make such information available – or is that best left in the hands of other gatekeepers such as government? The answer is complicated.

What is becoming clear is that the world is an increasingly complex place, filled with new dangers. In a global environment where privacy is becoming an increasingly rare commodity, the role of regulatory bodies is going to become ever more important and increasingly challenging.


1 Tatonetti NP, Fernald GH, Altman RB, A novel signal detection algorithm for identifying hidden drug–drug interactions in adverse event reports. J Am Med Inform Assoc 2012.