The growing importance and many challenges of digital ethics

  • Posted on January 8, 2015

digital ethicsAs I look back on 2014, some of my strongest memories are related to digital ethics, which are ethical challenges that come from transforming into a Digital Business.

As we increasingly interact with more algorithms and smart machines, as well as smart machines interacting with other machines or even representing people, there are some very difficult ethical considerations that need to be considered.

Although well-intended, it is very easy to find oneself skating on thin ice. For example, a major social network with their much talked about and unfortunate “Your Year in Review” incident, which highlighted painful memories for some users.

Another example are the telcos that started using hidden and undeletable ‘permacookies’ (unique identified headers used to subtly alter web traffic for wireless users in order to track usage across websites and apps used for detailed profiling and sold to advertisers). Frankly, we were also faced with the opportunities and challenges of machine learning at Avanade as we piloted Delve – we discovered that an HR handbook on policies around parental leave that is obviously not a secret, but something one may not want to see automatically trending around people who research and read it!

As information is being shared and enriched in data “supply chains” through networks of business, the risks quickly increase as much as the potential business benefits. As an example, yes, I may want my car insurance company tracking my driving habits and rewarding me as a safe driver, but would I be as comfortable if this were to go further? Would I feel comfortable with them automatically filing the claim and calling the police if I have an accident? Arranging a towing truck? Making a reservation for a replacement car?  Moving the next meeting in my calendar? Calling an ambulance if the deceleration telemetry readings are serious enough? Calling my spouse?

Gartner’s research vice president Frank Buytendijk made some really good points on this topic when I met with him at Gartner Expo earlier this year. The notion of complementing the “Digital Machinist” (which frankly is most of us working in IT nowadays) with “Digital Humanists” is a great idea.

We’ll be demonstrating a few of these ideas, applied in Retail at our innovation lab at NRF in New York next week. As an example, most retailers who are using beacon technology are using it to track the movement of shoppers in the store and, at best, to target them with relevant geo-spatial offerings. We believe that this is a one-sided approach, so we have teamed with Footmarks to innovate scenarios where a shopper can instead use the beacon to leave a message for another family member who would likely go to the same store on a later occasion. (“I’ve already bought milk, but please remember to buy the bulky tissue paper.”)

We’ll be demonstrating this and much more at NRF. Tours in our innovation lab are now completely sold out, but do say “Hi” if you pass by and we may be able to show you a quick sneak peak.

Daniel Ruyter

I'd say some industries are able to push the envelope more than others - like retail. I work in healthcare digital marketing and, with all the HIPAA regulations it's difficult to push boundaries. I do still think those boundaries are bound to shift in every industry as people's expectations of privacy vs. service continue to shift.

January 31, 2015

Rodolfo Roim

Very good point. Obviously, ethics should permeate and be the directorial of our daily decisions/action. In the Digital world, where users exposes personal information every second, it should always be brought for discussion. Very good.

January 13, 2015

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