Once a year I co-teach a post-graduate course on cyber-security, ethics and public policy. On the last day, we hold a discussion about how students might implement what they’ve learnt. The first time we did this, the conversation was a little dispiriting. Several students felt ethics were great in theory, but not something people at the start of their careers have the luxury of upholding. A couple said acting ethically meant being a trouble-maker and risked losing your job. My co-teacher and I exchanged a worried glance. Somehow, we had given them the idea that acting ethically is heroic and out of the norm. Before we could re-direct the discussion, a student spoke up, someone who had said little all week.
The student, an engineer, told how they’d been asked to take part in a large surveillance programme in their country, a deeply autocratic state. They’d struggled with the issue and raised questions in the organisation. Ultimately, they felt there was no choice but to resign and leave the country. The room fell silent as we each reflected on the heavy cost to this person and their family. This story of courage seemed to confirm the younger students’ fears about the personal cost of treating data – and citizens – ethically. So I asked the engineer what they felt about it all now, a couple of years on.
The engineer’s face lit up and also, strangely, relaxed. They were glad, they said, and at peace with the decision. And so was their spouse, who had actively supported them. They would not be the people or the parents they wished to be had they done things they knew to be wrong. There was no question that it had been worth it, and they would do it again tomorrow.
My co-teacher and I wrapped up the discussion immediately. Nothing we could have said as teachers could top hearing a fellow-student tell a story like that.
But recently, when it seems the only limits the datafied tech platforms willingly accept are the ethnical qualms of their own engineers – for example, Google and the military Maven project – I reflect on that story again. Why do we expect individuals to act heroically even as we accept shareholder-driven companies or surveillance-driven states may act sociopathically? And isn’t there a risk that focusing on ethics shifts attention away from organisations and incentive structures and puts too much responsibility on employees?
At the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, I will be predicting tech trends over the next 20 years and asking; ‘Is technology designed to serve humankind’? I’ll describe how developments in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and the Internet of things will change our economy, our homes, and how we make both art and war.
Data ethics and norms might turn out to be the domestic version of what international relations experts call ‘soft power’, the nimble and diffuse values that countries transmit alongside hard military and economic power. Soft power gets into places hard power never could, because it changes hearts and minds. But if data ethics are to ensure our future is at least as secure and free as our present, we won’t just need the occasional heroically ethical engineer; we’ll need ethical processes, ethical systems, ethical organisations.
And if ethics and norms seem vague and fluffy, take a look at places where they have collapsed; the politics of the US, Brazil, Hungary, and even the UK. The past few years have shown in country after country that seemingly ‘nice to have’ bonuses like norms of reciprocity, collaboration and civility are just as important as – and central to protecting – human rights and the rule of law. If laws and rules are the bones of a democratic society, then our ethics and norms are the muscles that make it move.
The next couple of decades will determine if we as a species continue to flourish. It’s scary, but also an incredible time to be alive. I’m excited to be working at the precise moment we need to take what that courageous, ethical engineer did and apply it as the Internet does best; scale it up, deploy it through the network and see how it works out in the wild.