Responding to the challenges of Big Data

In his recent paper, Big data and the Facebook scandal, Dr Michael Fuller suggests that theologians, churches and other religious institutions can help to address some of the ethical challenges arising from the mass harvesting, analysis and selling of online data.

Dr Michael Fuller head and shoulders photo taken in the Martin Hall in front of a cross and stained glass window

The paper, published January 2019, looked at some of the issues which, more recently, have resulted in a $5billion fine for the social media giant.

As well as describing problems around informed user consent, Dr Fuller summarised concerns around security, privacy and data brokerage, and asked: “How might theological responses be made to the various challenges raised by big data?”

Dr Fuller says,

“Theologians, together with churches and other religious institutions, are in a unique position to serve the community with regard to these matters, by raising awareness of them, providing fora in which they may be discussed, and offering practical, ethical and theological critiques addressing the use and abuse of big data.”

However, Dr Fuller also sees opportunities in the fast-moving field of data science, concerning hermeneutics – the ways in which texts (or datasets) are read.

In an earlier paper for the online journal Religions, he proposed that,

“A dialogue between data scientists and theologians concerning hermeneutical practices could be an important way in which skills developed in the service of a religious tradition might also valuably inform practices within this developing new science.”


Big data and the Facebook scandal: Issues and responses (Theology Vol 122, Issue 1, 2019. Sage Journals)

BBC News 'Facebook to be fined $5bn over Cambridge Analytica scandal' (July 2019)

Big Data, Ethics and Religion: New questions from a new science (Religion, May 2017)

Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society