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Digital ethics: Eight ways to ensure UK tech innovation retains morals

TechUK has come up with eight ideas on how to address digital ethics issues in 2019 after tech controversies including the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and China's social credit score plan

As the pace of innovation turbo charges, the danger of shortcuts being made and vulnerabilities exposed intensifies – making digital ethics issues all the more important.

The moral codes imprinted into decision-making algorithms have been the subject of a growing public debate over the past year following a string of high-profile data breaches.

In Britain, the technology industry lobby group techUK today (26 February) launched a new paper, titled Digital Ethics in 2019, which aims to ensure that digital ethics issues are regarded as “relevant and beneficial to the real lives people lead”.

TechUK deputy CEO Anthony Walker said it “reflects an imperative need to move digital ethics from debate to action”.


What are the main digital ethics issues?

Some of the main digital ethics issues include considerations about fairness, equality, morality and agency within decisions made by systems that use technology such as artificial intelligence.

One of the most infamous data breaches in which this challenge was presented came in last year’s revelation that Facebook sold millions of peoples’ data to Cambridge Analytica without consent to use for political purposes.

And it’s not just the West where the problem lies, with the Chinese government pushing for a scheme to rank all its citizens by a “social credit score” by 2020 as a means of monitoring their behaviour.

Mr Walker said: “If we are going to build greater public trust and confidence in technological innovations, we must demonstrate how digital ethics can deliver real answers to real concerns.

china sesame credit
China’s Sesame Credit system has been likened to George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a future governed by ‘big brother’ in 1984

“2019 is the year we need to move digital ethics out of the conference room and into the boardroom and business practices of organisations across the country.

“We have plenty of examples to demonstrate that thoughtful ethical practices support innovation and actually leads to better practices, products and services.

“We therefore look forward to working with a wide range of people, companies and organisations to make this happen.”

In the Digital Ethics in 2019 paper, TechUK has identified eight actions it believes will help create ethically-sound tech innovation in Britain.


TechUK’s blueprint for tackling digital ethics issues

Make the digital ethics debate relevant and valuable to people

The tech industry must clearly explain how digital ethics are not a solution for a single point in time to a particular problem, but help mould a long-term change in approach that embeds ethical thinking into every aspect of the tech ecosystem and the way every product is designed, developed and used.

Within this fundamental culture change should be a new way of ethical thinking that is applied to real-world situations and scenarios rather than being considered in an abstract way.


Engage with the public across the whole of the UK

Building greater public trust and confidence in tech innovation will depend on helping more people from all walks of life understand how digital ethics issues are relevant to their lives.

One suggestion from techUK is to identify specific issues, scenarios or contexts that can be explored in detail with public groups so that specific concerns and questions can be addressed.


Demonstrate how ethics is having an impact

With many companies across different industries developing their own ethical principles, codes and guidelines for ethical standards, it is now time for them to demonstrate what impact this has had on the way they operate.

Businesses need to develop more positive use cases and real-world examples to promote how ethical processes are benefiting employees, partners and customers.


Think digital ethics not just AI ethics

Most of the dialogue around digital ethics has been focused largely on the emergence of artificial intelligence, where data bias is one of the issues that must be solved.

But there are other technologies that also require more discussion, including blockchain, biometrics, the Internet of Things and quantum computing.

biometric passport screening
Miami International Airport’s biometrics-only Concourse E passport screening booth

While these developing technologies have the power for social good, their use could raise social and ethical questions around fairness, influence and accountability, which go beyond issues of data protection and privacy.


Create a joined-up digital ethics approach through co-ordination of initiatives and activities

New bodies and initiatives have recently been set up, including the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and the Ada Lovelace Institute – but a plan needs to be drawn up for these organisations to work together within a digital ethics ecosystem.

This will help prevent duplication of efforts, while enabling best practice to be shared and ensuring opportunities are taken.

TechUK will hold quarterly events during 2019 to bring together key stakeholders to share updates and discuss the key digital ethics issues.


Embed ethical decision-making in business decision-making

Thinking about the ethical implications of innovation in new tech can be a daunting prospect for some businesses, so a key focus this year should be to equip them with the practical tools and solutions to help companies integrate ethics into everyday decision-making processes.

This means involving employees in the ethics discussion, rather than just making it a boardroom issue.


Ensure regulators have the capability and capacity needed to consider ethics

As advanced autonomous technologies evolve and mature – and become more integrated in highly regulated environments such as healthcare, finance and automotive safety – accountability and robust mechanisms are needed to ensure effective governance of these innovations.

global autotech, Waymo
A Waymo driverless car in San Francisco (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having well-informed regulators that have the capability and capacity to understand and keep pace with how these advanced digital technologies are developing and being used is key to building trust.


The UK must continue to play a role in the international ethics debate

Digital products, systems and services developed around the world could one day be adopted and deployed in the UK, meaning the way other countries adopt ethics by design approaches could have an impact on British people.

As the international digital ethics discussion develops, it’s important the UK keeps up to date with the approaches taken in other countries.