Every year, I highlight the top five ethical concerns I believe my clients, policymakers, and educators need to be aware of and engaged with in light of current trends and ethical missteps in tech.
While there are many specific instances in which we can see the manifestations of unethical technology – such as deepfakes, data scraping, and unauthorized surveillance – this year’s list will group ethical concerns in broader terms, including the use cases of new technology; safety and security; socio-economic inequality; health and human impacts; and consumer privacy.
1. Use Cases
How might the product be used maliciously, in morally questionable or ambiguous ways, or result in individual or social harm? Have such scenarios been mapped exhaustively and extrapolated to all potential use cases? If a product is intended for one purpose, for what other more harmful purposes might it be useful (i.e. facial recognition software or the spread of [mis]information)? Are there biases in training data that might cause harm to or unfairly target certain demographics (women or people of color, for example)?
2. Safety & security
Security remains a high priority on my list for 2020, particularly given recent attempts (and successes) to leverage personal data in order to sabotage elections and undermine democracy. With the continued spread of disinformation and the use of deepfakes likely to rise, the dynamic of misinformation is amplified, as is its threat to social polarization and trends like denialism.
Beyond purely democratic concerns, product safety in general also remains an issue. Is the product ready for release, or is it likely to have substantial technical debt? How vulnerable is it to malicious actors? Has it been sufficiently tested?
3. Socio-Economic Inequality
Of all the problems inherent in the tech industry, socioeconomic inequality, to my mind, is the most concerning. Not only is the incredible wealth generated by the industry unparalleled, it is also highly concentrated. Add to this a singular ability to avoid corporate taxes, hiring biases, the creation of a two-class job market, the rise of economic dislocation, the potential for mass automation and job displacement, and an industry that seems uninvested in contributing to a solution, and you have the potential for a dangerously unequal society on your hands.
4. Health & Human Impacts
The ways technology changes our lives in more personal moments are just as important – some would argue more important – than the social impacts of technology. From tech’s war for our attention, to social media’s impact on anxiety and depression, to the digital “flattening” of friendships, technology seems to have a unique ability to deviate us from true sources of human happiness. As long as these digital tools are designed in a way that prioritizes profit above mental health, wellbeing, and social cohesion, our technology will continue to divide and depress us rather than unite and uplift us.
The surveillance, extraction, and monetization of personal data collectively represent some of the most overwhelming problems inherent in the business model of many “free” online services. such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The issues embedded within the dynamic of personal data exchange are as vast as the problem itself: how our data is employed, who it is made available to, the consequences of that transaction, and the lack of transparency about the use and financial value of personal data. (Thankfully, privacy and new laws around user data may be one of the first issues to be addressed by U.S. legislators.)
There are plenty of other areas in which we need to consider the ethical implications of technology, but in the short- to medium-term, these are the broad categories of concern that may keep me up at night in 2020.