Ethics in Technology
What is ethics?
Not to be confused with law, ethics is a set of moral principles, deciding what is good or bad with moral obligation. Ethics can be practiced in multiple areas of life, but we will focus on the technology industry. Emerging technologies are increasingly bringing up the topic of ethics. With facial recognition and data privacy breaches, people are questioning the ethical practices of companies involved in creating these technologies.
Facial recognition has various views associated with it. Is it a beneficial or a potentially unethical tool? Facial recognition software was originally created to retrieve images from databases. Since then, it has evolved to prevent crime, enhance personal device security, and identify users on social media. These uses may be convenient, but are they ethical? Using facial recognition to unlock a phone or tag users on Facebook requires companies to store that information. That’s not bad, assuming you gave permission in privacy settings or agreement documents. However, it becomes unethical when companies start using your image for uses beyond your given permission.
Facial recognition issues relate to data privacy breaches. How do we know our data is secure on the websites we use? Let’s use the 2018 Facebook data privacy scandal as an example. In summary, Facebook collected personal, identifiable information from about 87 million people and sold it to other companies. Not only is it illegal, but it is completely unethical to sell user information without permission. This is just one example but there have been many other data privacy scandals in the past and with emerging technologies, more to come. What type of standards should be put in place to control how companies use data?
Now, most of us know about the negative uses of facial recognition because that’s what we see in the news. But there have been beneficial uses too. One example is facial recognition software being used in airports to monitor people trying to illegally enter the US. An airport near Washington DC stopped a man from attempting to enter the US with false documents. The system was able to flag the man’s face because it didn’t match his passport photo. This software has prevented a few instances similar to this one since being implemented in 2017. This use case is tricky. Technically, passengers are giving permission for their data to be collected by complying with security measures, but who’s to say that the data isn’t being stored? Is that part of the “implied permission” given?
How can we ensure companies in the technology industry are ethical? One possible solution is to employ ethics training to employees and give them resources to report unethical behavior. Strong company ethics are important too. If most of the company practices unethical behavior, it only makes sense that new employees will too because that’s what they were taught. Starting new employees in an ethics program will teach them the importance of acting morally.
Uncertainty on how to handle situations and the fear of reprisal are two main reasons why unethical behavior can be a long-term issue. Unfortunately, that’s common in the business world. Whistleblowers face retaliation for calling out unethical behavior. Implementing a safe, secure and clear way for employees to raise concerns would decrease fear and allow them to keep the company and each other honest in their business practices.
Awareness of ethical issues in the industry will mitigate problems as well. Knowing what to look for in unethical behavior and having the resources to do something about it are important in decreasing incidences. If you notice unethical behavior, visit this page to find out how you can anonymously report an incident.
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