Monday, December 16, 2013

Technology Is Opening A New Era Of Ethics

Whether it is the accumulation of data about your life on Facebook, your online professional profile on LinkedIn, or the location tracking features of your cellphone, there has never been more data about you available.

Some of it is "public", some of it is definitely not.  The people that operate these various facilities all argue that they have a "commercial right" to utilize the data that their various services are gathering about you.

The right to utilize data is a complicated one.  First of all, who really owns it?  After all, what is posted to my Facebook account is mine, right?  Shouldn't I retain control over its disposition after it is posted there?

Perhaps even more troubling is the emergence of facial recognition technology, and some of its potential applications.

One of the things that the NSA spying on everything debacle shows us is that we cannot trust governments to access this information in a responsible manner.  Facebook has been criticized repeatedly for constantly altering their privacy policies and settings.

Those in the midst of developing these technologies are often blinded to how they may be used ... or worse, misused by others.  Did anyone who designed the protocols for TCP/IP ever consider how those packet headers would be used by the NSA?  Did the developers of database systems like Hadoop ever dream of the capabilities of that data store being used to feed a massive surveillance program?  Of course not.  They were trying to solve legitimate engineering problems that they were faced with.

Yet, here we are.  Data is being gathered about us every time we move in this world.  It is being used in ways that we never envisioned.  It's almost unavoidable ... unless you live under a rock somewhere with absolutely no digital footprint.

The behaviour of corporations in the last two decades has demonstrated that the boardrooms will never serve as effective moderators of the excesses of greed, and government organizations have proven that they will abuse data and their access to it.

In the realms of engineering and computing, the discussion of ethics has been limited to solving the problem that an employer puts before you "well".  Robustness, integrity and protecting the employer's interests are about as far as it goes.

There is little or no broader discussion about how data and the related technologies should be utilized.    The world of information management is filled with the accumulation of data, but not with people asking questions about how that data will be used in the future, or whether a given application is "acceptable" in ethical terms.

Professionals whose practices fall within the domain of information and technology can no longer focus on "just solving the problem before them".  There is now an emerging requirement that there be a frank discussion of whether or not a given application is ethically appropriate.  What are the consequences of using information in a particular way?

For example, is using facial recognition and Facebook profile data to generate "targeted advertising" when you walk into a Wal-Mart.  In doing so, have you violated what many would consider to be the reasonable expectation that Wal-Mart doesn't utilize the data you have posted on Facebook?  Or does the use of facial recognition technology in such a situation represent an unreasonable invasion of privacy?  Is an "opt-out" model that allows the individual not to receive the targeted advertisement an acceptable mitigation of the violations that are implied?

The argument "If I don't do it somebody else will" is no longer acceptable.  Professionals can no longer ignore the implications of what they are working on, nor is a confidentiality agreement with respect to the employer adequate either.  Yes, there is an obligation to treat the employer's data and commercial strategy a guarantee that a practitioner has met their ethical obligations.  

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