In technology we trust: How can your company ensure its tech is ethical?

Ethical tech
Patrick Riordan
Patrick Riordan
September 30, 2021
12 minutes
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As the global pace of digitalization accelerates, businesses are becoming ever more immersed in technology, regardless of sector or core activity. But the rush to establish a use case and demonstrate the Return on Investment (ROI) has tempted many to overlook the ethical implications of technology.

But what exactly is ethical tech?

The World Economic Forum defines it as technology with a clear moral dimension. It should be designed and deployed with sufficient forethought to account for and promote human and corporate values, ethics and norms with fairness and transparency at their heart.

1. What benefits can ethical tech offer transitioning organizations?

First, it’s a golden opportunity to promote and safeguard a trustworthy reputation and avoid damage. It’s clear that there is a huge and proven potential of digitalization as a force for good within both business and society. However, mistakes happen as the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), for instance, is fairly new and undefined, and many companies and institutions are still experimenting. These mistakes attract a lot of media attention, such as Amazon’s HR program that evaluated job applicants’ resumes to the detriment of women, or Facebook’s AI robots that had to be shut down after they started speaking to each other in their own language. Consequently, such cases raise general unease over the use of AI in decision-making and are cause for concern. Nonetheless, it’s important to state that these mistakes give a boost to development. It’s up to us to learn from them fast and establish improvements to build ethical tech in business and society.

Developing and embedding an ethical technology mindset in your organization when undergoing a digital transformation is crucial, since the consequences of an ethical tech incident can be substantial. With evolving digital technologies, ethical standpoints must evolve, too. What effect does it have on your customers, partners, shareholders, and employees? In the long term, an ethical tech company can enjoy competitive advantages by the chance to earn the trust of stakeholders by promoting human values.

How can you embed ethical tech into your digital transformation from the very start?

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With evolving digital technologies, ethical standpoints must evolve, too. 

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2. Transparency with data

Conveying a clear message on how you use data, and why you use it, should be a priority for executives committed to transparent operations. With ever growing quantities of data collected and stored from an increasing number of devices and sensors, an organization’s capacity to interrogate and analyze that data to gain valuable business insights becomes more enhanced by the day.

For instance, consumers’ personal details are now routinely collected and combined with an array of information harvested from their digital footprint. This might include social media posts, the route driven to the office, the buying history, internet search histories, and so on. The importance of data should not be underestimated; with society claiming the right to shine a light inside business practices to confirm whether corporate values align with their own, proactively ensuring transparency in how data is used becomes a business priority. This is also true for companies operating in the B2B sector since stakeholders are increasingly interested in ethical tech in the entire supply chain.

How can you establish data transparency?

An organization’s approach must be guided by a moral and human compass. To become an ethical tech company, leaders first need to establish and publicize company values. These should be based on customers’ expectations of openness and consent; The guiding principles of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) illustrate that for the European Union: lawfulness, fairness, transparency, integrity, and confidentiality. That gives some guidance for the use of new technologies involving data and AI to strengthen our democracies, give people a voice and make meaning out of data to create a better future. Second, it should be ensured that the way data is used aligns with the organization’s values.

The overarching imperative for digital organizations should be to work on building trust in the security of that data and promote transparency around its usage. And that starts with policy and procedure. That’s why it’s important to build a robust data usage. This involves categorizing data methodically and keeping close tabs on all employees who have access to it. Everybody can then be aligned around your company’s approach to accountability for data, how that data is used and how it’s protected.

As a crucial part of ethical tech, cybersecurity should be baked into your plans from the beginning, with digital transformation risk assessment undertaken as your project is being developed. It should feature at every stage and needs to be preventative, detective and defensive. This reflects the reality that security is a multi-faceted and on-going challenge, and one that responsible and ethical tech companies rely on to build trust in their use of data.

By gaining user trust, companies will be able to gather more and more data to enhance their specific offerings. Many argue that the real value for users and customers will be lifted when companies start collaborating more in ecosystems, rather than trying to reap small gains through acquiring more data than their competitors. However, moving from ego system to ecosystem doesn’t mean that you share your data indiscriminately with everyone. Ecosystem means that you share information only with trusted partners who have a common and aligned approach to collaboration, where it is clearly defined who contributes what to achieve a common goal – for the good of companies and its clients.

Modern technology

With society claiming the right to shine a light inside business practices to confirm whether corporate values align with their own, proactively ensuring transparency in how data is used becomes a business priority.

3. Respect stakeholder privacy

A commitment to an unambiguous approach to privacy will help to build stakeholder trust in the protection of data. Historically, big data has been characterized by a ‘catch-all’ approach to maximize data collection, allowing organizations to quantify an individual’s everyday life to the benefit of the company collecting the data. Because organizations have been keen to exhaust all its inherent value, it’s not been uncommon to sell on or share customer data in a secondary market.

But most customers don’t fully understand the specific purposes behind collecting and sharing personal data. A fear that many users have is that their information is accessed by unknown parties and that their everyday choices are being tracked, ultimately undermining their trust in the privacy of their data. Though being mostly illegal but hard to trace, algorithms designed to influence political opinion, or to promote “fake news”, are presenting us with ever more dangerous applications that have the potential to erode privacy.

How can you establish stakeholder privacy?

Go out of your way to demonstrate good behavior and compliance, and actively seek to banish opaque policies that technically tell the truth, but don’t quite tell the whole story. Carte-blanche to use data as you like is no longer acceptable, and if your organization has plans to sell personal data onto third parties, your customers need to understand that in full, actively give their permission, and be prompted to grant that permission at regular intervals.

Giving stakeholders control over their data builds transparency and aligns your organization’s everyday activities with the values it outwardly promotes. This is already a legal requirement in some jurisdictions; in the EU, for example, the GDPR outlaws any processing or use of data that an individual has not given consent for. In fact, it explicitly states that “data subjects” can withdraw consent whenever they want, and those who hold the data are obliged to comply.

 

4. Build trust in technology

A variety of more sophisticated technologies, including AI and machine learning (ML), continue to move into everyday life. According to The Harvard Gazette, global corporate spending on AI software and platforms is expected to top USD 100bn by 2024.

In addition to some of its most visible and benign uses in buying recommendations on websites or in translation tools, AI is also already used in a wide array of more critical scenarios, from helping medical diagnoses and assessing mortgage applications to keeping driverless cars safe. As a result, human oversight is instrumental, not just to ensure that disaster can be avoided in the event of technology breakdown, but to act as ultimate arbiter of a technology that is still likely to produce further ethical dilemmas. In short, ethical tech requires humans to be responsible and accountable for the final decision, not AI. Complex decisions should be more transparent, with the roles of AI and human intervention clearly visible in the process.

How can you establish technology trust?

Organizations must establish processes to ensure that they and their stakeholders know exactly what technology is being used, where it’s being used and how. Creating trust among clients, partners and employees is dependent on ensuring methodical and consistent human oversight of critical systems.

That’s why you should encode your organization’s values. Digital technology can be developed to take account of biased training data which results in algorithms and AI decisions so that the technology operates within the bounds of your company’s values. With so much riding on client and customer trust in the fairness and ethics of modern digital systems, encoding ethical values so that they can be assessed and measured against technological business operations will help bridge the potential trust gap.

One way around developed biases is to explain how AI decisions are made. For example, with medical diagnoses that rely on AI, healthcare companies have examined ways to give each diagnosis a confidence score based on a variety of contributory medical and lifestyle factors, allowing clinical staff to follow the workings of algorithms and introduce the benefit of their medical training and experience into that diagnosis if needed. AI is not replacing human beings, it’s enhancing them. But human beings are still in charge.

Taking it a step further, Explainable AI (XAI) is bringing further transparency to decision-making. Defined as a system that can explain its decisions, as well as the rationale for those decisions and some notion of how it might behave in the future, the self-learning AI platforms that power driver-less cars, for example, now have the ability to “explain” their choices. In this case, choices such as changing lane or accelerating or braking for no apparent purpose – and how factors influencing those decisions – are weighted. Yet, research on XAI is still fairly young and many questions remain unanswered, leaving applicants of AI with the sometimes tricky trade-off between the performance benefits of an unexplainable state-of-the-art model and an explainable, but lower performing, commodity model.

Ultimately, leaders must decide how to put their company values into practice to guarantee stakeholder welfare through ethical tech. The global tech industry can only build trust by using technology in a responsible way that promotes transparency and a purpose to that technology that focuses on the good it can bring about for all of society.

5. Guide ethical tech from the top and from the bottom up

There is an opportunity for leaders to gain a significant competitive advantage by making trust a business-critical issue.

 How can you establish this?

It’s equally important to drive ethical tech both from the top of your organization, and from the bottom up, too. Leaders need to communicate their company’s values and ethics, formalize them in policies and make sure technology use is aligned with those values. That process can be set in motion by making sure employees understand the commitment and dedication to ethical technology. When leaders communicate that clearly, it helps others throughout the company to buy into that sense of responsibility, and will inform ethical decisions aligned with company values.

Digital technology use cases that are specific to your company can help employees test your decision-making framework against real-life scenarios, and that framework can be used to question and adapt the way individual employees make responsible decisions. In turn, employees are then more disposed to develop a natural ethical mindset of their own, one that is more likely to manifest itself in all facets of their roles.

And that’s where the bottom-up approach comes in; by taking your cue from the Tech for Life movement – which establishes a “code of honor” for the tech community regardless of a person’s status within a corporation – you can help foster this bottom-up movement in the direction of socially responsible tech based on a human moral compass. After all, although it needs to be guided from the top in the design stage, ethical tech is a responsibility shared between each and every one of your employees across all functions.

Remember, data regulations exist to enforce broad minimum standards of protection; for example, the EU’s GDPR can penalize data misuse and breaches with fines of between 2% and 4% of worldwide annual revenue, or flat fines of EUR 10m to EUR 20m respectively, whichever is higher. Similarly, for the use of AI, the EU is acting as a driving force to establish legislation and we can expect laws and regulations to come soon. But if ethical tech comes from the bottom up and from the top with conviction, those values and ethics will infuse every decision with responsible ethical corporate values, policies and procedures that guarantee even higher standards around data use.

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The process can be set in motion by making sure employees understand the commitment and dedication to ethical technology. 

From the bottom, from the start & from the top

Ethical safeguards, policies and procedures can only go so far. To truly master the art of building trust in a burgeoning tech landscape, you need to devise ways to equip employees with a mindset sensitive towards ethical standards. The role of leaders today is to embed those values into the culture of their organization, from the bottom, up and from the top, down. That way, you’ll gain trust in how you use and collect data, in how your technology is deployed to make decisions, and in the privacy of all stakeholders; top-down and bottom-up leadership will ultimately help weave an ethical technology mindset through the fabric of your digital transformation to prioritize the relationship between technology and human values. Everyone involved in tech should apply human principles guided by an ethical compass to ensure that tech is used in a responsible way.

So, set out today to make sure your organization is becoming an ethical tech company in parallel to embarking on your digital transformation; start at the planning stage, apply ethical tech standards iteratively depending on your industry and business, and your efforts can offer a competitive advantage in the form of the trust of stakeholders, clients, and investors alike.

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Patrick Riordan
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