Approaching ICT trustworthiness from an ethical perspective

Hristina Veljanova
Talks on ICT should go beyond questions of mere functionality, usability and efficiency. They should also incorporate ethical standards and considerations of ICT's impact on the individual and society. Only in that way we can have more trustworthy ICT products and services...

Importance for Trustworthiness

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ICT has become an inseparable part of our everyday lives. Millions of Europeans make use of ICT products and services on a daily basis for carrying out various activities such as working, communicating, learning, shopping, playing etc. The benefits of using ICT are more than obvious. After all, ICT stands for innovation, progress, new possibilities. Nevertheless, in light of the rapid technological progress and the widen horizon of possibilities, there is also the need to look at the ethical implications this technology may have on fundamental rights and European values. This comes from the fact that today (a) technology advances with much faster pace than ever before, (b) it impacts everybody and every aspect of our life, and (c) the more complex and sophisticated it gets, the more difficult it is for the common user to understand the technology and eventually to have trust in it. Therefore, the question of how ICT products and services can be made more trustworthy has become one of the most important and pressing ones in the ICT discourse.  

Ethics as a discipline can provide valuable contributions in answering this question by pinpointing the normative requirements that ICT products and services should fulfill in order to be considered trustworthy. Determining these normative requirements would demand a priori identification and analysis of the most common ethical issues and concerns related to ICT. They range from privacy related issues, that is, cases when an individual is unable to control the access to and use of her personal data, to lack of transparency over activities with users’ data, lack of possibility for users to be autonomous in deciding upon activities with their personal data, cases of data-based discrimination and biased decision-making etc. These issues and concerns revolve around six central normative concepts: privacy, autonomy (and informed consent), security, transparency, justice and responsibility/accountability. The normative concepts also reflect important attributes of trustworthiness from an ethical perspective since they implicate what needs to be taken into consideration from an ethical perspective when designing and using ICT.

It is worth emphasizing though that the ethical issues and concerns appertain to, directly or indirectly, multiple stakeholders such as (a) Developers: any individuals or enterprises that take part in the design, creation and production of ICT, (b) Providers: enterprises/businesses that offer and sell ICT to users, and (c) End-users: individuals who interact with ICT for non-enterprise purposes. This distinction suggests that all these stakeholders either somehow partake in the occurrence of the above-mentioned ethical issues or are affected by them. With that in mind, the mutual interaction between these stakeholders in the ICT context can very often prove to be challenging since it brings to the surface some conflicts of interests and/or rights of those involved or even within a single group. Some of the most common ones are: end-user’s data privacy vs the social and economic value of data data-driven innovation, end-user’s data privacy vs businesses’ profit interests based on users’ data, end-user’s data privacy and security vs user-friendliness of a product/service, transparency vs data/system security. Accommodating these various conflicts and tensions is not always an easy task since there might be cases when the conflicting rights/interests may be (almost) equally relevant. Moreover, it is not always feasible to solve them by technological means nor it is always possible to guarantee a balanced approach. In some cases trade-offs need to be made and priority has to be given to some at the cost of others. This is often a political decision when it comes to providing a legal framework as put forward in the GDPR. However, it is also of great importance when we consider new transdisciplinary approaches towards technological development and design driven by social values and under the constant input from the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).

By addressing the issue of trustworthiness of ICT products and services from an ethical perspective, the idea is to contribute to multidisciplinary efforts in making ICT trustworthy and thus in line with fundamental rights and European values. This is even more important in light of the rapid pace of innovation and ever-increasing dependence on ICT in everyday life. In that sense, embedding ethical considerations should be an indispensable part of both the design and use of ICT. Moreover, ethics can always serve as a compass in ICT related decision-making processes and finally in drafting criteria and recommendations for trustworthy ICT products and services. However, while doing so, few fundamental questions need to be tackled.

  • How can a balance be achieved between the respect for fundamental rights and European values such as privacy and security and the enormous socio-economic benefits of ICT?
  • How can the six normative concepts privacy, autonomy (and informed consent), security, transparency, justice and responsibility/accountability be technically translated and what would be the barriers to that process?
  • Are there any further normative requirements that ought to be considered when addressing the trustworthiness of ICT products and services?
  • Where do the greatest situations of conflicts between rights and values lie?

We would very much like to hear your opinion on these questions. Become part of this debate and the mission in building trustworthy ICT products and services.


by Harald Stelzer and Hristina Veljanova (University of Graz)

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