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CW500 Club: Rising to the IT ethics and sustainability challenge

As technologists are asked to take a position of continuing leadership in the digital revolution brought about by tools such as artificial intelligence, the Computer Weekly CW500 Club looked at how to innovate in an ethical and sustainable way

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As the adoption of new devices, software and data increases to support the everyday functioning of business and government and promises ever-increasing social change, IT leaders bear a great responsibility to become agents for the ethical and sustainable use of technology at their organisations.

At the latest CW500 Club – Computer Weekly's regular networking event for IT leaders, in partnership with Mortimer Spinks – experts shared their tips, advice and real-life experience on what ethics and sustainability mean to IT chiefs, who are being urged to provide direction for organisations and society to navigate the digital revolution.

Commenting on her experience in the intersection between ethics and technology, Nadine Thompson, former chief technology officer at Conde Nast International and current consultant at News UK, touched on various situations she has witnessed that had ethics elements to consider – across adtech, personalisation and employee-facing technology tools.

On adtech, in which digital advertisers generate revenue by targeting different segments of the demographic groups most likely to buy their product or service, focus is narrowed with targeting by gender, age, behaviour, location and even time of day.

This approach brings several ethical considerations to the fore, said Thompson. She mentioned the lawsuit brought against Facebook by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging that the social networking site’s targeted ads have violated the Fair Housing Act by “encouraging, enabling, and causing” unlawful discrimination by restricting the users who can view housing ads.

“In doing that, Facebook is cutting off access to vast parts of the population in the US and their ability to access products and services,” said Thompson.

Personalisation is another area where ethics are relevant, she said. “Customers love a personalised product. They love a brand that gives them something that’s unique to them.” Thompson gave one of the News UK brands, The Times, as an example.

“If you subscribe to The Times, if you look at certain articles, it will suggest other articles in a similar vein using machine learning or artificial intelligence to show you what might be of interest to you,” she said.

“While that’s fantastic and it’s a really good service, we’re also seeing a challenge with that where [readers] end up in a bubble.” Thompson added that this is an industry-wide problem that players are looking to address.

“What I’m starting to see in the industry is the addition of random algorithms, whereby pieces of content are inserted into the different news feeds people are looking at – that gives them something different than perhaps what they are already experiencing to help expand the pieces of content that they’re consuming,” she said.

Defining just how personal personalisation gets is another ethical issue that organisations need to give more attention to, said Thompson.

“There is a really fine line here between knowing the customer and customising a service for the customer and overstepping that line based on the information you have about them,” she said, adding that this was epitomised by Target in 2011 when predictive analytics prompted the retailer to send coupons to a teenager for baby products, and her family finding out she was pregnant before she’d actually told them.

“That’s the line that brands are crossing when something comes from personal to a little bit creepy,” she said. “So that’s a real ethical challenge with some technologies.”

The ethics of employee tech

On employee and technology tools, Thompson noted the emergence of a new approach around expectations from employers as they provide the tools and devices for staff to work remotely.

“I’m starting to see conversations in companies now about whether they should set an expectation that employees have to be checking email or answering phone calls,” she said.

“That is really an acknowledgment of work-life balance. And I see companies positively starting to enter into those conversations.”

On a related issue, Thompson commented on the new ethical considerations around employees bringing their own devices to work.

“I’ve seen different attitudes and different thinking on how much data the company should be able to access on that employee’s device, whether they are able to wipe information from it and how much control [organisations] should have over that device,” she said.

“Similarly, there are ethical concerns around collaboration tools. Although they are great for communication, they can also be misused, with staff having their communications monitored or remote workers being looked at to see how much time they spend on their computer.”

The various implications around technology use and provision in the enterprise means added responsibility for CIOs, who can no longer remain passive when it comes to ethics, said Thompson.

“We can’t continue to be technology providers of platforms and products that have little say or responsibility to what content goes on those platforms or products, or what communities use those platforms or products,” she said. “I think that’s where we’re becoming real technology leaders as we take responsibility for that conversation.”

According to Thompson, CIOs must be working with their teams to help with this conversation, and having a diverse workforce is key to such efforts. “Diversity is incredibly important when working to address ethics, not just because it builds better products, but because it helps you to see your blind spots,” she said.

The sustainability issue

Quoting Robert Swan, author of Antarctica 2041, who said: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that it is somebody else’s job to save it”, Mattie Yeta, sustainability lead at the Department for Environment,  Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), commented on the importance of taking responsibility for issues related to sustainability.

Sustainable procurement is a major area of focus for Defra, which has embedded that requirement in all its contracts to suppliers in all areas, including IT, said Yeta.

“Governments and public sector organisations are becoming really serious about ethics and sustainability, and we are making sure that they have been embedded into the contracts and in other ways,” she said. 

“Companies that would like to do business with us are held to the highest of standards across the environmental, social and economic pillars.”

On supply chain management and transparency, a number of big brands faced issues because of their failure to identify risks and register supply chain transactions, as well as their inability to track and trace materials and components across their supply chains, said Yeta.

Suppliers to Defra – including Microsoft, HPE and Amazon Web Services – are helping the department to push the sustainability agenda forward and “lead by example”, she said.

Defra has also launched an investigation to find out the energy footprint of the cloud services it uses, as part of the research around the next Greening government ICT annual report, to be published in October.

Key matters are ensuring sustainability through specific clauses in IT contracts, and taking the topic into consideration in procurement processes, said Yeta.

“Ensure that you hold those that you do business with to the highest of standards when it comes to sustainability,” she said. “There is a lot more that we can do in the tech sector in terms of extracting minerals and components in giving assets a second life.

“The tech sector is growing at a very fast pace, and with that growth comes great responsibility.”

Leadership support is also crucial when driving such initiatives, said Yeta. “If your leaders are not on board with sustainability and ethics, it becomes very difficult to implement initiatives in your organisation. It needs to be embedded in your ways of working, in your culture, in your values – otherwise it just won’t work.”

Getting direction

Often, IT leaders may want to steer their organisations towards becoming more ethical and sustainable, but struggle to define a clear vision. With that in mind, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) was set up earlier this year as an independent government advisory body to help organisations benefit from innovation in an ethical way

CDEI chairman Roger Taylor said: “One of the reasons for creating an independent advisory body is that public confidence in the use of these technologies is absolutely essential – and for the public to have confidence in them, they actually have to be trustworthy, so managed and governed in a way that it would be sensible to trust in them.”

Mindful of the need to drive trust in innovative tools, the centre has been working with a number of public and private sector organisations around ethics principles and governance.

As algorithmic decision systems become generally pervasive, it is often unclear where the data comes from, which is something that needs to be considered, said Taylor.

“In any situation in which large amounts of data are effectively driving decisions, it’s not at all obvious how this system is working,” he said. “And there is constantly a concern about the degree to which we have any more control over this.”

While there is worry about regulatory gaps on the one hand, Taylor noted that there are also concerns that organisations are not making the most of “incredibly powerful and beneficial” tech innovations.

IT leaders need to be aware of the impact of the technologies they deliver to society, said Taylor, adding that organisations that are trying to walk away from that will probably run into difficulties.

“We do need the great power of these systems because they do allow organisations to understand how they operate and the impact they have,” he said. “But they have to take responsibility for that understanding.”

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Points to consider for IT leaders looking to delve into the ethical issues related to the portfolios they manage include allowing independent access to data to assess the ethical impact of systems, as well as understanding algorithmic bias, said Taylor.

“Whether you’re using AI for HR to sift through candidates, if you’re using AI systems to do advertising content, you must consider to what extent is there a risk that you are enabling or actively promoting biased algorithms,” he said.

Autonomy versus manipulation was another point raised by Taylor that needs to be discussed by organisations looking into the ethical impact of their systems.

“You need to consider to what extent might it be said that your system is not persuading people, but it is manipulating them by using information in a way that they might not have imagined, to try to get them to do something that they might not have wanted to happen if they had been able to fully appreciate how the system was operating,” he said.

Product safety is another key ethics-related issue, said Taylor. “We’re seeing this particularly arise in relation to mental health and social media, so to what extent companies are enabling criminal activities or [dissemination of] harmful material,” he added.

The industry is coming to a point where getting a clear handle on the ethical aspects of technology innovation strategies will become a competitive advantage, said Taylor.

“I think it’s smart thinking to try and be ahead and set the highest possible standards, show that you are behaving ethically and that the impact of your innovation use is not harmful and leads to a system with public values and a better society.”

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