Computer Weekly Editor's Blog

Jun 10 2013   4:39PM GMT

Morality and ethics – the ‘next big thing’ for IT suppliers

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick


Nobody in the IT profession can be disappointed that technology has become such a central part of the way we all live and work.

For anyone who has been in the industry for 10 or more years, it is fantastic to see IT taking its central place in business and society; for technology to become cool at last; and for IT experts to no longer be dismissed as the geeks in the basement.

IT is enabling so many positive things – changing our world in the biggest social and business revolution since the industrial age.

But with that greater influence, comes greater responsibility. It is inevitable there would be a backlash, and that backlash is well and truly underway.

IT was at the heart of the global boom in financial services. Today it stands accused of enabling the behaviours of bankers that crippled Western economies.

Facebook and social media have transformed personal communications, enabled new communities and improved information sharing for all. But at what cost for privacy of our personal information.

Google and Amazon have made it easy to find information, to buy quickly and cheaply, opening up new knowledge and commercial opportunities. And they are pilloried as arrogant tax avoiders.

But the biggest example of the dark side of technology so far is dominating front pages and web pages alike around the world – the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitoring of electronic communications, and the allegations of complicity on the part of the global internet giants that provide that data.

Look at all the great things the web allows us to do – and look at how easy that makes it to create a surveillance society. As someone said recently, if you could give George Orwell one Tweet from beyond the grave, he would write: “I told you so #Prism”.

This backlash is an inevitable stage in the progress of technology and the digital revolution, but of course it presents challenges on a scale that the world has never before had to comprehend.

Today we call people who resist the tide of technological change Luddites, but the textile workers who gained that name when they destroyed the mechanised looms that threatened their livelihoods in the industrial revolution were simply examples of the 19th century version of the backlash that technology will have to go through in the 21st.

The immediate aftermath of the NSA Prism revelations will see greater demands from governments for Google Facebook, Microsoft et al to establish local datacentres for their cloud services that ensure data is not shipped into leaky US-hosted servers, and subject instead to local laws and oversight. (Not that locally stored data would be any less surveilled by those governments, of course).

We will see more “walled gardens” created, often to the horror of internet evangelists who rightly say the strength of the web is its openness and collaborative nature. More people will want to know that their web activity is actively protected, and will use the open web only for less sensitive information.

But what we will also see, eventually, is morality and ethics becoming one of the ways in which technology companies of all kinds are judged.

Post-industrial revolution employers who embraced trade unionism were revered and grew their business through their acknowledgement of the new relationship between company and workers.

In the same way, tech firms of tomorrow will need to demonstrate they are able to manage the increasingly fine line between opportunity and responsibility that the digital world creates.

Protecting privacy will be a badge of honour, not a 50,000-word statement of terms and conditions. A transparent recognition of the needs of the intelligence services and how that affects users will engender trust. Even more likely will be the rise of services that put personal data back where it belongs – in the hands of web users, not web providers.

The whole nature of the relationship between technology firms and their users – both consumer and corporate – is going to change before the digital revolution is complete.

But before that happens, the dark side of technology is going to dominate the headlines. For smart IT suppliers looking for a new way to differentiate themselves, trust, morality and ethics are the next big thing.

3  Comments on this Post

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  • fubar_saunders
    Technology doesnt have a "dark side". It either does, or it does not. Human beings, either singularly or collectively can be argued to have a "dark side".

    What dominates the headlines is what todays "journalists" and editors believe meets their criteria of good copy, that will sell and is often sensationalised one way or the other.

    Never thought I'd see the day when CW ended up going down that path.

    Google are doing nothing more than obeying the tax laws of the UK. If the great unwashed do not approve, they will vote for whichever politician claims to be able to change it. Protecting privacy is hardly new, given the lax data security at a physical and networking level that we have seen reported by CW over the years. This is nothing new that impinges on "morality".

    Today IT stands accused of facilitating the bankers? By who?? This was an utterly facetious claim when it was first aired five years ago and it remains so now. What enabled the crash was woeful regulation by a hamstrung regulatory body and a political landscape where the industry was seen as a perpetual growth tax-cow to be milked indefinitely.

    One of the first things anyone learns on entering the profession is that computers are essentially dumb unless they are told what to do. This, at this juncture still holds water. Morality and ethics are human concepts not IT ones. And, are usually used by groups of people who seek to see their own equally dubious morals and ethics taking primacy over the status quo. Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy", anyone? Harriet Harman's "Court Of Public Opinion"? The thought of technology's onward advancement being in thrall to the liberal intelligentsia's ideas of morals and ethics is enough to give me the creeps, frankly.

    The next big thing? No. Absolutely not. That is just a simple case of effective contract management.

    The next big thing is whether we want a home grown, home-developed IT industry at all or whether we are still happy to see the industry being owned and run by offshore and multinational conglomerates where everything is outsourced to the cheapest bidder and the labour force imported from overseas because we have allowed our own IT education system to wither on the vine.

    The ethics and morals of allowing that to happen over the last 20 years would be worth CW pontificating on, not a quasi-Guardianista puff piece like this.
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  • Bryan Glick
    Hi Steven,

    thanks for your comment - it's an interesting read.

    To take your last point first, on the decline of the home-grown IT industry, I agree with much of what you say. Computer Weekly has harangued the government and others to the best of our ability to encourage the growth of the UK tech sector. There are some bright spots now but more certainly needs to be done. It's good, for example, to finally see some acknowledgement of the dreadful state of IT education, even if we have yet to see whether its replacement will really be better.

    On the "dark side" of technology - well, without wishing to get into the semantics of such a statement, my point was that technology is becoming so embedded into our lives that it certainly does now enable human behaviours (both positive and negative) at a scale never before seen.

    With the banking crash, there's little doubt that things like algorithmic trading and automated trading contributed to the crash.

    Yes, it was the behaviour of human beings that caused it - after all, they created the software and the regulatory environment that allowed it to happen - but the scale of what took place would not have happened without technology enabling it.

    Similarly, as you say, protecting privacy is nothing new, and the ethics around privacy is very much a human thing - but the scale of potential privacy abuse that technology enables now is on a whole new scale. The NSA Prism story is just one example of that.

    Technology per se clearly does not have morality, but the companies that supply and deploy IT do - companies are just groups of people, after all.

    Morality and ethics are people related. But technology tests many people's morality and ethics when it presents new opportunities to them.

    My point was not that technology itself has morality or ethics, but that IT suppliers etc will be judged on their morality and ethics as their customers and users come to better understand the threats that ubiquitous technology can present in the wrong hands.

    Let's see - but I'm confident that in years to come, IT suppliers will be judged increasingly on the ethical way they do business, and not just the products and services they provide.

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  • JRudkin
    It is already judged....ethically, by trust and on morality, but can be found rather wanting in many of these areas. Over hyping, under delivering, becoming the butt of jokes. IT may well be more central than ever, but at its worst, it is still very poorly thought of.
    It cannot help that disaster after IT disaster is documented in public. The latest is the BBC pouring £100M down the drain (you can find that one for yourself in NEWS). In the public sector too, IT has been used to hide some pretty damning examples of improper and immoral activity. I recently saw the development of an interesting product in the public sector. Alas greed was also evident, because once this product was embedded the IT Director set himself up, was party to a half million pound tender, won it for his organisation, and in effect sold the product developed with public money back to the very same organisation that had become dependent on it. Supposedly this saved money. It is simply immoral, if not corrupt.
    Transparency should be added to the prerequisites in all major ICT programmes. Enough of the pirates.
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