Creating a Future for Ethical Technology

June 18, 2019 //

Ethical Technology illustrationIn the technology industry, the unending pursuit of the next big innovation leaves little room for ethical considerations about data privacy and evolves too quickly for any governing body to create and enforce regulations. For years, technologists have held firm in the belief that they do not need government intervention to regulate their actions, but in light of recent revelations that belief is starting to waver.

The complicated relationship between ethics, regulations and technology came to a head in 2018 thanks to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. When the social network exposed the data of 87 million users to the Trump Campaign’s political consulting firm, consumers began to question whether or not they really had control over their personal information. In a survey conducted that year by Pew Research Center, roughly half of U.S. adults revealed that they do not trust the federal government or social media sites to protect their data. Now more than ever, the pressure is on policymakers to close the gap and regulate the industry. However, the question remains: can you enforce ethical behavior in tech?

Creating an Environment that Supports Ethical Behavior

Let’s start by looking at the workplace. For ethical decision-making to become a part of a company’s practice, there needs to be a cultural and organizational infrastructure in place to support it. Many believe that a c-suite position for ethics and integrity should exist within every organization, and a handful of companies already have that role in place. Leora Eisenstadt, assistant professor in the Department of Legal Studies at the Fox School, believes that it’s a step in the right direction, but for the position to be successful, it needs support from managers and employees at all levels.

“It’s not going to filter up to the chief integrity officer unless the people on the ground are asking the right questions,” says Eisenstadt. Encouraging employees to speak up and challenge their superiors when they sense an issue is crucial to implementing this type of change. “If that is not encouraged, you’re never going to hear it,” Eisenstadt says.

In addition to internal checks and balances, there also needs to be external regulations to hold companies accountable. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently preparing for what could be the most substantial penalty in its history for Facebook, but it’s hardly enough to have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line.

If the U.S.had a comprehensive policy akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Facebook would be liable for up to 4 percent of its annual global revenue, or $2.2 billion. According to Anthony Vance, director of the Center for Cyber Security at the Fox School, a penalty of that magnitude is the only thing that will get major corporations to pay attention, as it could have an actual effect on the company’s performance. “Right now, there is no law or major penalty,” Vance says. “So companies treat data as a resource to them; as their own asset that they can mine and resell, which is a huge privacy violation.”

The Role That Policy Can Play

There is hope yet, however, in the California Consumer Privacy Act, which was signed into law in 2018 and will go into effect in 2020. Inspired by GDPR, it will set the bar for online privacy in the U.S. “Now, there’s huge legislative pressure to enact some kind of federal regulation to basically enshrine ethical principles about privacy and law,” says Vance. “For the first time in history, tech companies are pushing the federal government to create a uniform policy.”  

Even with internal and external regulations in place, it’s also vital for us as consumers to play our part and pay attention. There will always be more powerful technological developments on the horizon and new dilemmas to face in the future. It’s not realistic to expect consumers to read through every line of every “Terms of Use” policy they see, but it’s important to be aware of the way a company operates. We have the power to vote leaders into political office that understand the industry and can fight to enact laws on our behalf. “That responsibility doesn’t just rest on technologists,” Vance says, “it rests on us as people.”

How to Be a Responsible Tech Consumer:

  • Install an Adblock extension in your browser if you want to prevent your data from being collected and tracked
  • Be aware that if you’re using a free service, you’re the product of that service, and limit the data you share
  • Find and support political leaders who are tech-savvy and share the same beliefs as you do about privacy and ethics laws  
  • Stay informed on recent events in the tech industry, especially for companies that provide a service you are actively using

This story was originally published in Fox Focus, the Fox School’s alumni magazine.

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