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Developing technology ethically: who is responsible?

Businesses must continually come back to the idea of what should they do with data, rather than what could they do with it

Jeff Fried
|Nov 8|magazine10 min read

With the rapid advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities, methods of data gathering, and the associated use cases, have become much more sophisticated for businesses in recent years. This has led in turn to increased concerns around how this data can be governed and used in an ethical way. Ethical management of data is increasingly at the forefront of developers’ considerations when building new applications.

In fact, research by InterSystems found that 82% of developers say ethical concerns are now much more of a consideration than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly heightened these perceptions given there is now an increased requirement for people to share sensitive information, such as for Track and Trace purposes with apps collecting customer data in restaurants or gyms. As the use cases multiply, a question persists around who exactly should take responsibility for the ethical aspects of application developments, and what role the developer plays.

The current situation

Organisations are currently split in their ethical approach towards development, as 28% of developers report ethical issues to the legal or HR team, 23% find it’s sorted at C-level and only 19% actually have a dedicated ethics officer. Surprisingly, the actual responsibility for dealing with ethical issues lies with the developer within 16% of organisations. There isn’t a consistent approach across the board, and within many organisations the approach and responsibility is not clear at all. 

Due to this confusion around responsibility, and the variety of different roles across organisations that are incorporating the management of ethical issues, it’s no surprise 13% of developers don’t know who to report these concerns to. There is an issue around lack of awareness of ethical issues, but there’s also a major issue around accountability – something that needs to be rectified when sensitive data is at play. 

The ethical challenges developers face are likely to only increase in the coming years, whether in relation to cybersecurity, the use of data or the growing use of technologies like AI and ML. With more and more issues relating to the use and treatment of data, organisations need to decide who is responsible for the ethical considerations around data and its usage.

Solutions to the ethical question

In creating clearly defined roles within an organisation, such as a data protection or chief ethics officer, businesses can send 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 help them ensure that the applications they are building comply with best practices. Increasingly, more developers (52%) are looking to consult those responsible for ethical considerations as they build applications, both to achieve compliance with regulations today, and to establish technology and processes that ensure ethical data handling including compliance going forward. 

Creating strong accountability and processes and removing the onus for these issues from developers, will help with their workload and their stress levels. Currently more than eight out of ten developers feel that they work in a pressured environment. The solution to this can include the use of intelligent data platforms with integrated frameworks to ensure that developers build every application in accordance with regulations.

This kind of solution is particularly crucial for financial and healthcare institutions where personal data is stored in large volumes. The use of technology makes it easier for ethical data handling to be built into applications from the outset and reduces the number of people and processes that need to be involved. 

The wider considerations of ethical technology

More than ever, consumers are now choosing the organisations they interact with based on their ethical efforts and no longer just economical or convenience factors. With this shift in consumer demand, how an organisation protects, processes and safeguards personal data is increasingly becoming a competitive differentiator, so businesses must make this a priority when 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 across the organisation. There should also be individuals whose clear duty is to govern the use of data and ensure that these morals are upheld. By always considering the ethical standpoint, an organisation can ensure compliance to regulations, enhance its brand, reduce stress on its employees, and also ensure the loyalty of its customers.    

By Jeff Fried, Director of Product Management, InterSystems 

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