Big data is a hot topic these days. In his review of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, David Pittenger shows that it is important for psychologists to pay attention to it. Big means really big, “data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using... traditional data processing applications” (Wikipedia). Google searches are that big. So is the UPS package-tracking system. And then there is our National Security Agency, which may have stored all my gmail contacts, as well as those of my cousin in Germany. I think few psychologists will have access to these super-sized data sets, although our personal computers will allow us to process sort-of big data--- gigabytes, if not brontobytes. (I had to look that up.)
Pittenger raises the important issue of the ethics of using big data. He says it portends both “solutions to the many problems of the day” and also “a dystopia that eliminates reasonable expectations of privacy, the localization of control to only those who have access to data.” However, earlier in his review he seems to take a more accepting view of the unobtrusive nature of big data research:
The searches that people perform, the pages they view, and how long they linger at a site become ideographic information, thus allowing the clever analyst to use online behavior as a reliable predictor of a medical condition, as was the case when the retail store chain Target detected an unmarried teen’s pregnancy before she shared the information with her family (Hill, 2012). Might contemporary experimental psychologists be able to use big data to examine modern racism, obedience and conformity, the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy, or mechanisms that control the construction of sentences? The potential is intriguing.
For me, the potential is disturbing. The Target case would not pass the standards in the APA ethics code (Standard 8). Research using Facebook postings would seem to be an area in which large amounts of data could be collected without the consent of the posters. Are there other examples in which people can become research subjects without their consent? How can standards to consent and privacy be applied?