The Ethics Code
To talk about ethics is to remember the ancient teachings of a time when man began to live in society and, from that experience, started to establish norms of behavior and interaction. Ethics emerged from this coexistence. Its values are changing, being questioned and even trivialized or forgotten.
But, what about when an industry, profession, or entity does not abide by a code of ethics, or these values are not discussed nor matured. What, then, is acceptable? What is mandatory? What is reasonable?
Looking at the spectrum of technological developments, artificial intelligence algorithms are interfering in a wide range of activities and, most of the time, in a non-transparent way. With the emergence of machine learning, when computers started to learn and “think” with each interaction, society faced ethical issues and dilemmas that did not exist before, as well as perceived the need to develop a basic level of familiarity with and trust on ethical questions.
Bringing this to the corporate world, using an example like sharing private information within an organization, necessarily raises a question for specific actions, “Would this be moral or immoral?” The truth is that some companies do collect information about individuals and entities in order to use it for their own benefit, without any morals. In other words, as systems and tools quickly restructure, one thing is clear — ethical dilemmas will only become more common over time.
The role of organizations
As companies work to delight their consumers, they must also ensure that they are trusted by the public. Several scandals regarding individual’s data and information have surfaced in recent years. The most famous one was the “Facebook-Cambridge Analytica” scandal.
As everyone knows, the company has an extremely disruptive and inspirational track record and has helped to completely transform the ecosystem in which it operates. Unfortunately, Facebook betrayed the trust of its users and sold their data to the company mentioned in the name of the scandal, thus breaching ethics in an institutional way. As it was possible to verify, it was evident that the company accessed end-user data in order to promote personalized political advertising about a certain candidate and, at the same time, to direct messages that could harm the opponent’s performance.
The scandal took on another dimension when the hypothesis was raised that certain information being conveyed was false or misleading. In short, driven by the gigantic demand from its billions of users and a billion dollar fine, Facebook focused only on ensuring that the content on its network accumulated clicks and hits.
The truth is that when no one takes a step forward to maintain ethical standards throughout the system, society will pay the price in the end. The good news is that several companies have created initiatives to educate their developers, bringing the challenge of getting them out of their comfort zone while complying with ethical standards, as is the case of the German mega-software company, SAP. In 2018, the company announced the creation of an external ethics committee for artificial intelligence composed of specialists from academia, politicians, and industry professionals, thus becoming the first European technology company to have an Artificial Intelligence advisory board. The initiative aimed to ensure the adoption of principles and mutual collaboration with the internal committee, composed of SAP executives in the areas of development, strategy, and human resources.
“SAP considers the ethical use of data as a fundamental value, we want to create software that enables smart companies and improves people’s lives. These principles will serve as a basis for making AI a technology to enhance human talent. ” Jaime Muller, COO of SAP Brazil.
And you, DEV? What is your role?
With the advent of privacy laws worldwide such as GDPR, LGPD, CCPA, APPI, etc., technology professionals, especially those working in security, have a key role in adapting companies, processes, and controls related to privacy since the misuse of personal data could represent a threat that is often irreversible for an organization and its ecosystem.
Developers can be the last line of defense against unethical codes and act to prevent inappropriate conduct from being implemented. In this sense, it is essential to reflect on how the systems being built can affect society and individuals. In order to make a difference in the world, ethical thinking must also be part of the code development and design process. In this way, a real transformation is initiated, which can reach the leaders of technology companies, system designers, programmers, and the whole ecosystem.
It is up to you to reflect on what information is being collected, and if in fact this data is needed. Collecting all the information for later evaluation should not be an acceptable option. There is tremendous power in your hands, which must be combined with solid ethical principles such as dignity and justice. The temptation of using this tremendous power unethically must be avoided at all costs.
A simple example of using ethics in the digital age is to think about whether customers at a store or supermarket would be comfortable if employees offered them products according to information tracked by cookies on the internet. There is a huge difference between receiving sporadic e-mails from a company that a person voluntarily signed up for and being bombarded with advertisements about a particular product based on our online behavior.
The aspects that pose moral and ethical issues in technology today need to be delineated and controlled, taking into account all the parties involved.
Discussions based on open ethical issues and debates about rights and responsibilities are good paths to follow when introducing technology ethics. Looking at specific case studies or examples of when ethical considerations have not been considered can be a useful context for introducing this area of study.
The issues surrounding technology and ethics will only become more and more relevant. We don’t know what the future holds, but we can work to make it the best it can be.
Remember, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it!
And you DEV, do you seek to understand the ethical standard of society and the company in which you operate when coding?