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Who watches the Watchmen?

Most people know about ethics in healthcare. The idea of the Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm’ is well established and is one of the reasons we allow doctors, surgeons and nurses the freedom to perform invasive surgery or to tell us what medication to take. 

If we don’t have paragons such as Hippocrates or philosophers of ethics for the tech industry can we trust ourselves, as IT professionals, to be our own gatekeepers? 

We are all starting to realise that nothing in this world is for free, including the technology we use online and especially the big social media and search engine providers. So how can tech companies make ethical decisions when the first priority is to fund their company?

Ethics – or perhaps the lack of them – runs through every part of the tech industry. From using tech for good by inventing voice generators for people with speech problems to the creation and dissemination of malware or the recent Cambridge Analytica harvesting of 50 million Facebook profiles to allegedly sway opinion during elections.

Universities in the US including Harvard, MIT and University of Texas have introduced new courses on ethics and the regulation of AI. However, even universities are dependent on funding from the private sector and so in many respects may never be able to freely disseminate the knowledge we need for stimulating debate without restricting their funding.

It’s impossible to argue tech is neutral. 

Who decides which technology is developed to improve the lives of people? Who programmes the driverless car to avoid some obstacles but not others? Who decides which videos aren’t appropriate viewing and removes them from online platforms?

Every feature of every piece of technology has been developed by humans, and ethical choices need to be made every day along with all the business and technical choices we have to make. 

Throughout the 50 years we’ve been representing IT professionals in Ireland, we have always asked our members to agree to a level of ethical standards for the good of society. Before you join us you must commit to the ICS Code of Ethics

Ethics in the IT profession frames the boundaries of our relationships with customers, colleagues and society. Professionals are accountable to themselves, the ICT Profession and society. The same goes for all of our member bodies such as the Association of Data Protection Officers which has a similar but more specific code of practice for data protection professionals. 

It is much more than just a box ticking exercise. As IT professionals we have a responsibility, now more than ever, to ‘do no evil’. We must be professional, accountable and transparent. We need to protect the reputation of our profession because each of us not only represent the work we do and the organisations we work for, we represent the profession and in doing so we represent each other.

Furthermore, our members commit to undertaking continuing professional development, showing their dedication to keeping up to date on new technologies.

A lot of the work we have been doing in trying to introduce Continuing Professional Development (CPD) into the profession is not just about your skillsets or to use the HR word, your ‘competences’. It is about the standards and example you set and follow.

CareerPlus, our CPD system for ICS members, is based on a European standard, the e-Competence Framework (eCF). This standard was formalised by the CEN Technical Committee 428 on behalf of the European Commission and is responsible for the standardization of a common language of Professional Digital and ICT competences, skills and knowledge. ICS Deputy CEO, Mary Cleary, chairs the CEN Workshop on ICT skills and now that eCF has been accepted as the European standard for skills, work has begun through the committee to establish the standards for ethics among European IT professionals. 

So we know the importance of speaking up for ethical practices and avoiding bias, no matter how uncomfortable the subject. We also know there is a lot more to be done.

We represent our members, but also challenge them to do the right thing. We will stand behind our members and support them in what they do, but we are also prepared to withdraw membership from those who let the profession down.

Want to do the right thing? Join us, we’re stronger and better together.

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