Dealing with digital ethics: the six-step guide

From transparency to user choice, new IoT systems are faced with privacy and ethical issues at every turn. What can IoT vendors do to show compliance in their systems?

The Internet of Things is quickly becoming an untameable beast as more and more devices and systems are digitally connected through the accumulation of billions of pieces of data. While this is an exciting time for the progress of technology, the sheer volume of data being transmitted raises ethical concerns with the users of digital systems.

Since the Facebook data scandal in 2018, there has been a rising distrust and suspicion of how data is being used – especially by big tech companies. This suspicion has led to the end of Google parent company Alphabet’s Quayside project in Toronto. The aim was to build a high-tech IoT connected smart city, however the public ruled that the collection of their data while in this space would be an invasion of their privacy. While this distrust will not slow the progress of Internet of Things, it will make IoT vendors work harder to justify their systems to its users.

The concept of digital ethics is still relatively new, especially in the realm of IoT and it’s difficult to know where the lines are. As a result, Signify has constructed a guide for IoT vendors to conduct best practice and navigate through the murky waters of digital ethics as they inevitably confront ethical and privacy issues in the future.

1. Build ethics and privacy into the system

Privacy and ethics should be a core consideration when building any system. Its important to be transparent with what data is being collected and how it is going to be used and vendors should lead with that from the outset, so users are fully in compliance. It is also important to have a clear sense of ownership of privacy and data issues; this could take the form of a Chief Privacy Officer.

2. Offer an easy opt-out

If vendors chose to automatically opt people into their systems, then they should make it clear and easy to opt out. It will reflect better on the company if they offer the user a transparent choice whether to use their system or not.

3. Offer opt-in

Even better, vendors can offer an opt-in option. Instead of assuming user participation from the outset, vendors could offer an opt-in choice so people can actively engage with the system. It should be the user that makes the choice, not the vendor.

4. Make sure the system is obvious

While many IoT system are purposefully designed to be seamless and invisible for the convenience and ease of the user, this can also present ethical issues. Where IoT systems are present, users should be notified with signage – while users may not always be able to opt-out of these systems – especially if they are embedded in a city or workplace – the ethical lines are less blurry if the user is aware that the system is active.

5. Rule in favour of humans

Any issues involving IoT should be resolved in the interests of the human runner and their privacy. If any initiative raises reasonable doubt that it is in breech of privacy then it should be scrapped.

6. Follow data privacy role models

Bloomberg and JP Morgan Chase are examples of companies which have taken their responsibility of data collection and sharing very seriously. Both organisations have established a reputation for ‘advancing social good’ and reducing information inequality.

As IoT continues to evolve it is likely to generate more ethical questions; vendors should be prepared to justify their data collection and how they use it to their users. The vendors who lack transparency will be viewed suspiciously by the increasingly sceptic and watchful public eye.

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