When your data science activities can send you to prison...

Many products or published articles based on data science are heavily regulated, and illegal to perform or publish or sell without a special license, especially in US. You may be doing research and development on a topic considered as classified by the US government. Here a few examples:

Depending on how strong your algorithms are, it could be classified material, and you might not be aware of it until you get a letter from the NSA (after all, if you don't have access to classified information, there's no way for you to know whether what you do is classified or not).

Besides, other data science activities could cause you other troubles, for instance:

  • Designing algorithms, trained on data, to beat the IRS, using legal techniques only
  • Publishing a list of prices for medical procedures (with price range), broken down per hospital, based on data collected online from patients, with their consent
  • Predictive algorithms for sport bets
  • Gambling or bets that involve guessing econometric indicators, such as stock prices or indices. While this is different from a lottery in the sense that winning is based on good data science rather than pure luck (lottery is another business that is great for a data scientist, although universally illegal), it might still be illegal depending on your jurisdiction.
  • Operating an insurance company (a great fit for data scientists, who could design far more cost-effective policies, or new insurance products currently not available on the market, such as insurance against tax audits). The same applies to money-lending companies. This is because data scientists are good with data segmentation (to identify good customers to target), risk management (to predict chance of default), predictive modeling, machine learning (to train algorithms), scoring technologies, pricing, and have a strong business acumen - all qualities important to manage such businesses.
  • Setting up a new digital currency. Lot's of data science involved in such a venture.
  • Designing an automated, online diagnostic system (web or mobile app), based on Artificial Intelligence and decision trees.

Do you know other types of data science initiatives that could get you into trouble? Do you know people who have been investigated by enforcement agencies for their data science activities? Can you get into trouble even if you work for a large company, as opposed to being an entrepreneur?

And what about delivering predictions deemed unprofessional by a judge who knows nothing about predictive analytics: these scientists were charged with manslaughter for making wrong Earthquake predictions, after the tragic Earthquake in Italy. Wouldn't these cases discourage any data scientist from delivering public predictions, making the world a worst place than today?

More generally, what kind of data science activities are subject to litigation or government control, with the potential for lawsuits, big fines, and imprisonment?

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Comment by Sione Palu on September 14, 2015 at 3:37pm

This article is way misinformed.

Quote : 'You may be doing research and development on a topic considered as classified by the US government. Here a few examples"

This is nonsense. Can you give a specific example rather than generalizing? Classified according to what? A classified government piece of information or technology is not the same as someone independently developing the technology him/herself unless the developer acquired the knowledge to his/her technology via spying. In the history of science, there have been many examples of 2 or more people independently developing he same idea without them being aware of each others' work. It doesn't mean that one person stole the other person's ideas. If someone invented an idea he thinks that's not been done before, but perhaps the government already developed the same idea, without the inventor himself being aware that his idea is not new since the government already developed it but maintain its secrecy as classified, it doesn't mean that the government can charge this person with stealing the idea unless it was leaked to the inventor by spying. So, the idea that government can charge someone who developed an idea on his own that the government has already developed & deemed it classify is completely absurd.

Copyrights violation is a different matter.

Comment by Vincent Granville on September 13, 2015 at 8:04pm

Probably the biggest risk is patent trolls claiming that your invention infringes on one of their numerous frivolous patents, and suing your employer, or yourself if you have money. A solution to this issue is to produce open IP, accessible to anyone, making your invention un-patentable and lawsuit-proof. A patent does not offer that much protection anyway. 

In my case, I tried to trademark click scoring, and after an 18-month battle with the trademark office, my application was rejected, but AdKnowledge somehow managed to acquire the trademark right after I was declined. I still own the domain clickscoring.com though, and AdKnowledge never sued me - it would have been a lost cause for them, from the start. Corruption and ignorance is rampant at the trademark and patent offices. This is one of the reasons I decided to move to an open-patent system, which has served me well so far. 

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