Ethical Issues in Information Systems

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Originally published Dec 27, 2018, updated May 06, 2021
Ethical Issues in Information Systems

It's a common view that information technologies are rapidly changing the global social order. Digital transformation affects the state, business, and everyday human life — we all face it. Moreover, these processes blur the boundaries between the physical, biological, and digital worlds. By changing the material and social context of human life dramatically, technology changes our perceptions of ethical decisions and unethical behavior in specific situations and alters codes of ethics.

An Overview of the Main Ethical Issues the IT Industry Faces

Advances in intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, 3D printing, quantum computing, genetic engineering, and other technologies inevitably affect human behavior's moral norms and the perception of reality. 

Computer ethics study how computer use affects human behavior and changes moral standards. It considers technical, moral, legal, social, political, and philosophical issues. It goes hand in hand with information ethics that focuses on various aspects of information abuse.

Let's have a closer look at the main ethical and social issues the IT field faces. 

Privacy in Information Systems

privacy-in-information-systems

Just a few years ago, some innovative ways of data processing seemed impossible. Today, hardly anybody is surprised by such technologies as profiling, contextual advertising, or customized services. It's no longer sufficient to only comply with legislation requirements and privacy laws when developing client data-based information technology products and online services.

These technologies pose potential threats to personal data protection. Let's take health care applications as an example. Computer systems collect great amounts of sensitive data - hereditary diseases, age, gender, medical history, lifestyle information (bad habits, mobility), etc. 

The other example is financial applications and services like online banking, tax management software, or digital wallets. The breach of confidentiality can lead to tremendous and often irreversible consequences.

Private organizations and government agencies use Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness (NORA) technology to collect large amounts of data and combine it to profiles. Casinos first used it to profile cheaters, and now it benefits law enforcement. However, it also comes at the price of individual privacy.

Tech companies are willing to provide any service to their users for free to obtain personal data on an ongoing basis. This leads us to "privacy inflation." To get every new or improved service, the user has to provide access to an increasing amount of personal data. There's a variety of these deceitful practices, and they become more elaborate every day.

Deloitte defines conduct risk as a number of unscrupulous practices like fine print, contract terms confusion, unnecessary services imposition, or customer misleading companies use to obtain client's additional personal data.

Confidentiality issues in IT lead to the creation and implementation of the Privacy by Design framework, which is based on the use of information through seven key principles:

  1. Proactive not reactive; preventive, not remedial;
  2. Privacy as the default setting;
  3. Embedded into the design;
  4. Full functionality — positive-sum, not zero-sum;
  5. End-to-end security — full lifecycle protection;
  6. Visibility and transparency — keep it open;
  7. Respect for user privacy — keep it user-centric.

The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) created a portal to monitor privacy settings and information security. It includes links to popular e-commerce sites, email and mobile services, search engines, and social networks. The NCSA recommends using these direct links to update your privacy settings on popular online services and devices.

Intellectual Property

intellectual-ptoperty

The next sensitive topic regarding ethical issues in information technologies is intellectual property protection. The collective term intellectual property refers to the exclusive rights to creative activity results and individualization means.

  • Unauthorized access to content is easily available. People think about the ethical factors and consequences less.
  • Internet social codes of free downloading, streaming, and sharing affect understanding of the intellectual property concept. In many cases, content and software piracy become a norm.
  • In the digital media environment, people often are less empathic towards people affected by their actions.
  • Easy access to large amounts of content brings a lot of confusion. 

Intellectual property is protected by trade secrets, trademarks, patents, and copyrights. Companies use trade secrets to protect strategically important information they are not willing to disclose. Legal specialists use the other three terms in a situation when non-tangible property owners share the information that needs protection.

Several global organizations and many governmental initiatives help prevent intellectual property theft.

  • The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) cooperates with international organizations and countries and administers key international intellectual property conventions. WIPO currently has 193 member-countries. Among other services, the organization has international patent, trademark, and design systems.
  • The ICC (the International Chamber of CommerceCommission on Intellectual Property includes 300+ members from 50 countries and is a leading policy-making figure influencing business processes worldwide.
  • Creative Commons is a US non-profit organization and international network that offers legal tools to mark creative work, including free licenses and copyright protection. These tools help you use your work commercially, create remixes, or share it according to copyright law.
  • Many companies and organizations successfully practice signing non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with employees, partners, or any other third-party accessing their internal information. Such documents are a regular practice in business ethics.

Artificial Intelligence

artificial-intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) can improve discriminatory measures such as racial profiling, behavior forecasting, and even sexual orientation. However, rising ethical dilemmas require solid legislation development to ensure a responsible approach to AI technologies development.

As of now, there are two main approaches to further AI development:

  • Utopian view: Intelligent systems will open a new age of enlightenment, where people are free from work for better goals. AI systems will be programmed to treat disease, settle disputes fairly, and improve human existence.
  • Apocalyptic view: intellectual systems will steal our work, surpass people, become used for military purposes, and shape the future over current needs. Our dubious efforts to control them will show only our own shortcomings and poor ability to apply morality to technologies that we cannot control.

Many specialists agree that AI development requires an integrated approach to reduce the possible risks of ethical problems. This approach includes three steps.

  • Step One: Ensuring data quality. AI algorithms learn by using preprocessed datasets. If your algorithm makes inaccurate or unethical decisions, this may mean there was not enough data to teach the model. Sometimes developers involuntarily input unethical values into the system by biased data selection or false labeling. That is why the input data should be complete and correct.
  • Step Two: Ensuring proper supervision. Whether it's a data analyst or an ethics specialist, assigned professionals should take responsibility for AI policies and protocols, including compliance with standards and system quality. This helps take into account AI errors and establish clear limits of AI development.
  • Step Three: Considering new technologies' impact. It's impossible to foresee all potential scenarios of AI development. However, adjusting training datasets, controlling the data sources, and nonbiased data transformations may help predict possible outcomes.

According to UNESCO, artificial intelligence can support millions of students in secondary education, provide an additional 3.3 million jobs, and help address the spread and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the many benefits, AI also poses risks of misuse of information systems and deepening the digital divide between countries. The organization is proposing a comprehensive global normative instrument to provide artificial intelligence with a solid ethical framework that will protect and promote respect for human rights and human dignity. Once adopted, the instrument will provide an ethical framework and a global regulatory framework for the rule of law in the digital world.

Conclusion

The digital world's essential features allowed millions of people to initially see it as an opportunity for additional freedom, including liberty from social control and moral imperatives. It has lead to many challenges information technologies face today. The conventional principles of right and wrong often shift. 

Privacy issues and confidentiality breaches, intellectual property theft, and ethics of AI development are among many problematic topics information society has to deal with on a daily basis. Many government agencies, non-profit, global, and local organizations introduce new practices to address them as political issues, influence global decision-making, and ensure innovation technologies' positive development.

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Tasha Kolesnikova
Content Team Member

I write articles and do SEO-optimisation here at Studybay. I'm obsessed with creating content both people and Google love, surfing in Portugal, and dancing Jazz-funk.