Today we have technologies that enable us to develop previously unthinkable applications. CIOs and IT leaders need workable models to judge the ethics of these new functions.
One of the best things about our jobs is the potential we have to “do more or better” – we say things like “what if we…” or “we can do that.” But we rarely follow those comments with questions such as “is that ethical?” or “does that cross the line?”. Yet we are at the center of our company’s digital transformation.
Few of us in IT have training in ethics and moral philosophy. Creating an ethics framework is as foreign to IT executives as differential equations are to kindergarteners. Perhaps we can train future technology leaders in humanities, but that won’t fix the problem today. There are code reviews, sprint reviews, milestones, and perhaps data privacy or data security reviews. However, CIOs and IT leaders need workable models to judge the ethics of our actions. Why not ethics reviews? If there was an ethics review process, would Volkswagen’s software developers have coded fake emissions readings? Would Uber have developed features to fool government regulators?
Furthermore, CIOs need to lead this change. Our non-IT colleagues may not see the underlying inherent value or threats within in new software and large data sets. We’re all aware that improperly collecting customer data is wrong and risky. We all want to protect our employees’ personal data, and not manage it incorrectly. We struggle to understand how our data sets can potentially create bias in our algorithms. These tests should be the responsibility of IT leaders.
What can we do?
Start with a checklist of questions, to judge if an idea is ethically sound.
· Is this work (project) illegal in any country?
· Does this work respect the dignity of all people?
· Is this work something that is sustainable?
· Does this work foster transparency, and honesty?
· Does this work require people to think about potential harm or good to them?
· Can I do this and tell my family about it proudly?
More generally, we add the following questions to our easy list from above:
· Can we describe the balance between good use and harm?
· Does this protect and respect the moral rights of our customers, users, vendors or employees?
· Are we treating everyone fairly?
This is the start of an IT code of ethics. Physicians have the Hippocratic oath, soldiers have an oath and code of conduct, lawyers have an oath to uphold the law. There a various oaths proposed for business. We need one for IT.
Is it enough to say that we didn’t foresee a consequence of our actions? After all, technology is neutral, and we are constantly discovering new ways to apply technology. Just because the competitor is doing it, doesn’t mean we should. The approach of “if I don’t do it, someone will,” fails the ethical sniff test. We take in huge quantities of customer data. Is there a limit to the data we should gather, even if it is given freely and captured via the web? There is no easy answer, but there likely is a limit to the data we should retain and use.
In summary, we have technology that promises to change our economy and culture. Our legacy will not be determined by the speed or cleverness of implementing new technology, it will depend on the good we bring to our companies, communities, and the world. We can measure the hard benefits of technology, but our ultimate obligation is to lead this transformation ethically.