IT: Time for an Ethical Awakening

It is almost impossible not to be impressed by the sheer audacity of the IT revolution: its relentless, accelerating advance; the grandeur and scale of its conquest; its rise from backroom boffin to blue chip wunderkind; its quasi-religious status with its billions of devoted followers worshiping not just weekly or daily, but in every waking moment.

With IT now wired, beyond the slightest doubt, into every aspect of our lives, we find lifestyle itself is now accelerated - supercharged - and we are in thrall to its speed and scale and scope: how we love technology and the numerous benefits - both real and apparent - it confers. How we take pleasure in the dazzling cornucopia of services - both practical and effervescent - supported by those billions of lines of code most people will never understand, let alone have time or inclination to scrutinise. Like excited teenagers buying tickets for the latest fairground ride, IT users are all-too happy to throw caution to the wind, trusting not only their money but their very lives to engineers who are as oblivious as anyone else as to where the roller-coaster tracks may finally lead: for the one thing we know for certain is that this ride is not taking anyone back to the start.

And, as an IT professional - as one of those engineers - I feel I do have some responsibility for the all-conquering colossus I have in some small way helped to build. Let’s start with privacy: I don’t want to be smug or sanctimonious here, I just want to highlight how cheaply we have come to value our privacy. For me, it is a source of much regret that IT, which has the power to bring so much beneficial light and shade to our way of thinking, often rather resembles a searchlight wielded in shady ways.

Indeed, IT has been welcomed at every turn with blind trust, which it has in turn exploited with a casual indifference so as to take advantage of every available niche in our lives. The original Trojan Horse seduced with its beauty and its deceptive status as a divine gift. Similarly, we threw open the gates to the citadel long ago, allowing IT to become a cultural, social, economic, and political force arguably unmatched by anything we inherited and cherished from previous centuries.

Consider this innocuous example:

“Your coffee machine isn’t working? Have you tried turning it off and on again?”

The infamous ‘restart’, loved and hated in equal measure by IT support teams since the 90’s, 'turn it off and on again' has long since entered the lexicon as a universal ‘answer for everything’. Why ‘re-make’ a classic Hollywood film franchise when the fans are expecting a ‘reboot’? Why try to fix a company (or a career) when you can simply wipe the slate clean and launch ‘2.0’? Even rival superpowers, which used to have détente, now have diplomatic ‘restarts’. Of all the IT mantras that could have permeated wider culture, ‘turn it off and on again’ is hardly the most cerebral, and the worst part is that it is a two-way street: having exchanged quality for expediency, we have permitted IT - and ourselves - to deliver slop work.

With schedules and development always seemingly ten steps ahead of accountability, initial criticism of slop work inevitably gives way to apathy and then cynicism: the only explanation for the misnomer of “best practice”, so frequently applied to the poor design, planning, and general incompetence that belies the ‘restart’ attitude. IT has basically legitimised the ‘intentionally careless error’ into our language and consciousness so deeply, we are unconscious of its malign nature and presence. Consider that, in these heady ‘bleeding edge’ days, beta is the new release state; early versions seem to glory in the aim of intentionally never finishing a product; to go to market with a fully-realised, fully-tested product would be to invite ridicule.

I would not blame the Time-To-Market, or single out IT companies for criticism but the picture is clear: speed is prioritised over quality. This begs the question that if - as certainly seems to be the case - economic performance is not compromised, then is there not a moral and ethical case to answer?

“How dare you waste everyone’s time with ethics and morals? What do those things have to do with anything?” - heard a thousand times during professional debates, and to which the answer can only be: EVERYTHING.

Yet, as is abundantly clear, IT has not been liberated from this blinkered state at all. Is it arrogance? Hubris? Marcus Aurelius expressed with characteristic elegance, how our actions are driven by our wishes, and our needs defined by our ethics and morale references. Even if stoics may be considered over-idealistic, certain timeless truths can provide much-needed clarity and direction. At the bottom of an individual’s - and a community’s - actions, we find our moral references and drives. Sooner or later, we do have to ask “what it is all for? Is it the time for an Ethical Awakening?”
At which point, we will conclude that it is does indeed come down to ethics and ideals.

The problem is, that as a community, IT professionals are taking the ‘later’ rather than the ‘sooner’ route on this - hardly ‘bleeding edge’! In fact, I would go as far to say that IT has failed - even actively refused - to weigh ethical questions for decades. The responsibility we try (or should try) to assume individually, has almost never been assumed at organisational level at enterprise IT companies. That attitude weighs most heavily when we consider our data, which brings me back to privacy.

The Tinder data enquiry is, truly, a terrifying example: a noxious but timely wake-up call to the real nature of companies that deal with data, and the sinister direction in which they - and we - are headed. If something can be harvested, analysed, discovered, and exploited, they are already doing it. Statistical functions, data mining, machine learning ...all perfect tools targeted at learning and inferring your deepest, darkest secrets. And they will find out, it is just a matter of time. Companies are, without rest, targeting, collecting, harvesting and exchanging data, our data.

Indeed, these companies are not so much dealing with data as dealing in data. As Nick Srnicek declares in his new book Platform Capitalism, “Data is money.” And it can affect your money too! Everything from the kind of job offers you receive to mortgage and insurance quotes, all based on information freely, if not knowingly, handed over by individuals via apps like Tinder, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all the others. From single location data, your home address, your working address, to your commuting and shopping habits, all can easily be extracted.
Many references can be found demonstrating how easily identification can be performed by location data only. And all companies really need is quantity. And quantity can be reached by time. Time is all they need and Mathematica will extract the details you never imagined to have been shared.

By searching for correlations and patterns with other location data, your relationships with other people, products, and services can be also mapped and analysed: elementary analysis these days. I merely ask people to measure the weight of interconnected databases between companies. As our hunger to be connected grows, so our privacy consciousness seems to fade. We just do not really care, until reality bites, when it is too late. Let’s be clear: we are at a crossroads with data privacy - just as the lustre of expedience led the previous generation to sacrifice quality for speed, we are now in danger of sacrificing the real autonomy of privacy in a connected environment, for the illusion of autonomy in a controlled environment that is, frankly, Orwellian.

“If it suits me well so far...” can no longer be our complacent response. It is time to introduce regulations, legal considerations and standards, to size the subject to the level of laws and authorities. To make companies declare themselves as entities with real, not token, values. It is time for us to call IT companies to account, to use their services only if they comply with the basic rules and decency any rational and freedom-loving society would expect. Yes, it is time for us to seek for compliance statements, ring their bells and investigate all the processes they perform in relation to our data.

I do not want to over-dramatise, but would it not be great to start by drawing a moral borderline for IT companies: force them to ask permission and agree to checks every time they insist on coming in or bringing something out - nothing more than a gate-porter does at the entrance to a company.
GDPR and e-privacy standards are designed to support this noble effort of ours.

Please check our blog post for details about GDPR.

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