Ethical tech: whose responsibility is it, anyway?

How the ethical issues of developing new technology applications are being handled by different organisations, and the impact that these varying strategies are having on developers.

shutterstock 1811758804 02.10.20 ethical tech whose responsibility is it anyway
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This is a contributed article by Jeff Fried, Director of Product Management, InterSystems.

As organisations begin to use data for a wider range of purposes, and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) become more advanced, the idea of ethics is moving to the fore of application development. For many, the question businesses ask themselves when building new technology applications must no longer be ‘can we do this?’ but ‘should we’ and ‘is it ethical?’.

The governance of ethical issues, such as what data will be gathered by the application and how it will be used, is becoming a bigger consideration, especially for developers. According to new research from InterSystems, 82% of developers say ethical concerns are more of a consideration than ever before. The increased use of data and data sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic has likely influenced this shift in increased awareness of ethical development. Particularly as many leisure industry establishments, such as restaurants and cinemas, now have apps or websites which are being used to collect and store consumers’ personal data. However, despite this, it is also becoming increasingly clear that businesses are currently failing to reach a consensus on who developers should report ethical issues to during builds and what part developers themselves should play. So, who exactly should be responsible for ethical issues when developing a new app, for example, and where do developers fit in?

The current state of play

Currently, it appears there isn’t a uniform approach to ethics within developer environments with 28% of developers reporting ethical issues to the legal or HR team. In almost a quarter of organisations (23%) the responsibility lies at C-level, while less than one-fifth (19%) of organisations have a designated ethics officer. However, perhaps most surprisingly, the responsibility for ethical issues lies with the developer within 16% of organisations.

With the responsibility of ethical issues lying with a number of different individuals depending on the organisation, there is some confusion among developers, 13% of whom don’t know who to report ethical issues to. This suggests that businesses need to increase awareness not only of the ethical issues developers may encounter, but who they can turn to for support with such concerns. This will be crucial moving forwards as the ethical challenges developers face are likely to increase in the coming years, whether in relation to cybersecurity, the use of data or the growing use of technologies like AI and ML. As each of these issues pertain to the use and treatment of data in some respect, it’s easy to see that as businesses look to solve ethical dilemmas, they need to take a clear stance on who is responsible for data and how it is used within their organisation.

Finding a solution to the ethical dilemma

One of the most effective approaches will be to create clearly defined roles that are responsible for data and ethics. For instance, organisations could appoint a data protection officer, a trust and ethics officer, or a chief ethics officer to ensure they maintain both compliance and trust through the ethical use of personal information. Creating these roles sends a strong message to employees and customers that trust, and by extension, privacy, security, and ethics, are at the forefront of the culture of an organisation.

For developers, having a clear picture of who they should talk to about ethical concerns and the use of data will ensure the applications they are building comply with regulations and best practice. Further to this, developers are also following a range of different processes to ensure applications they build comply with regulations with over half (52%) of developers working with those in their company who are responsible for it, while 27% use a governance framework and 18% don’t play any role in this aspect of a build. By creating uniform processes and removing the onus for these issues from developers, it could also reduce the amount of pressure they are facing, as currently more than eight out of ten developers feel that they work in a pressured environment. As part of this, the use of intelligent data platforms which have standards and frameworks built into them can help to ensure that developers build every application in accordance with regulations – this is particularly crucial for financial and healthcare institutions where personal data is stored in mass volumes. This use of technology makes it easier for ethics to be built into applications from the outset and streamlines the number of people and processes that need to be involved.

The wider context of ethical technology

As individuals begin to choose which organisations that they will interact with dependent not only on economic or convenience factors, but also how well the organisation protects and safeguards personal data, ethics will become a competitive differentiator. Therefore, it’s vital it becomes a bigger priority for businesses when using data and developing new technologies.

As part of this, businesses must continually come back to the idea of what should they do with data, rather than what could they do with it. This mindset should be adopted organisation-wide, however, there should also be individuals whose duty is to govern the use of data and ensure that these morals are upheld. By taking an ethical approach to technology and data, businesses will be able to ensure they are adhering to regulations, while also taking bigger strides to gain the trust and loyalty of customers.

Jeff Fried is Director of Product Management at InterSystems. Fried is a long-standing data management enthusiast, and particularly passionate about helping people create powerful data-driven applications. Prior to joining InterSystems, he was CTO of BA Insight, and ran product management for FAST Search and Transfer and for Microsoft. He has extensive experience in data management, text analytics, enterprise search, and interoperability.