We are increasingly observing the positive impact that data-driven tech has on society, especially the transformative effect of artificial intelligence (AI) on business. Yet concerns and challenges around the ethical use of data in tech still prevail, from how businesses can use ethical restrictions to their advantage to how they can use data ethics as the core for customer-focused tech that lasts.
The technology we create today can impact on millions tomorrow. Therefore, advances in technology must coincide with the development of a robust ethical framework within organisations. The ethical considerations and frameworks discussed below will not just help to create better customer outcomes, they will also build better business outcomes.
Ethics is an essential component of society. It is a study of right and wrong that helps to shape our behaviours and keeps our conduct in check, preserving peace and humanity.
Ethical frameworks do not have to be a bad thing, just guidelines helping you towards an end goal. If we move from a state of complacency to a mindset where finding solutions and working outside comfort zones can help to stimulate innovation, this can only be a good thing for business.
Unethical actions disrupt the delicate balance of the value exchange between businesses and customers, as we have seen with recent media coverage of ethical scandals caused by technology misuse.
Data can only be a true force for good if underpinned by trust. This is clearly demonstrated through the recent challenges around adoption of the coronavirus contact tracing app. The public is fearful of the UK Government misusing their data. Therefore, if the public does not trust the government enough to download the app, its full potential to do good is thwarted.
Apps such as this could help with social distancing and reducing transmission of the virus. For instance, supermarkets and transport providers could utilise them to show the public when services are quieter. In this context, as long as the data processor and controllers are using the data for its rightful purpose, this data would be used ethically as a force for good.
Another area where trust is essential is with cookies. They can be incredibly beneficial to businesses who are trying to personalise the customer experience and for customers, who gain value from tailored, enhanced services.
However, some organisations that adopt the poor ethical practice of “blind consent” - trying to get users to agree to cookies by inundating them with information overload - are inadvertently discouraging more data-savvy users from trusting them and are losing out on these unique marketing opportunities.
Transparency and clarity are key to building trust and limiting uncertainty. If we can better explain the process of how AI or tech software is built, what decisions they calculate and, subsequently, how any outcomes will affect a data subject’s life, this will go some way to rebuilding trust.
By taking the time to analyse your intentions and their impact on others, you can develop a robust structure in your organisation to help prevent more severe compliance issues further down the road. There are three main frameworks to help embed ethics into your business and technological processes:
Each framework is applicable to how we do business and, in turn, how we design, develop and deploy our technology. However, it is important to understand all three as certain situations will require the use of different frameworks.
These are not blind solutions to our problems, but instead tools that enlighten our thinking and empower us to make informed decisions. By understanding these frameworks, we have the tools needed to reason through difficult ethical dilemmas, as well as to help predict potential impacts and outcomes of the decisions we make.
Once the intent and impact surrounding an organisation’s practises are understood, it is a case of finding the right ethical guidelines to incorporate into your infrastructure.
The “top-down” method typically used by large corporations works by first establishing a set of values into your company. These are then enforced by a centralised department that monitors standards and targets risk mitigation. This requires a dedicated staff resource as it is both time-consuming and labour-intensive.
The “bottom-up method - the preferred choice of many start-ups - utilises the experience of external resources that can provide ethics training and education for employees. It is essentially building an ethics culture from the ground up in the company.
But the solution may be somewhere between the two. A robust ethical framework is a combination of developing a company culture where values are developed in cohesion with customers and staff, and by also using the experience and knowledge of external stakeholders to build and integrate into your existing company culture.
For too long, we have remained inclined to view ethics as something that will decrease our development and add more paperwork to our processes. One of the reasons is that we tend to view an ethical code as a set of constraining rules. We have the misconception that true innovation can only be achieved when we are given a blank canvas to do whatever we like: no restrictions, nothing to hold us back from turning our wildest idea into reality.
But ethics is not a blocker - rather, it is an asset to long-term innovation for sustainable technology. If we truly want to unlock the full potential we have for innovation, constraints are essential for the creative process as they help to build trust, clarity and accountability.
When we move ethics into the mainstream and make it our responsibility, we give ourselves the opportunity to uphold our values and, even better, our quality of life through tech that we can trust.
Rachel Aldighieri is managing director of the Data & Marketing Association