Digital ethics: What do leaders need to think about?

4 May 2021

Image: © Nataliya/

From privacy and surveillance to fairness and transparency, Avanade Ireland’s Graham Healy discusses what leaders need to think about when it comes to digital ethics.

As digital transformation accelerates, there are plenty of issues for leaders to contend with, from considering a remote workforce to a decentralised data management system.

However, there are also ethical issues to consider when it comes to digitalisation, including data privacy, transparency and accessibility.

According to Graham Healy, the areas on which leaders need to focus their attention depends on several factors, including the business they’re in. Healy is the country manager for Avanade in Ireland, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture that delivers digital, IT and advisory services to clients all over the world.

‘With rights come responsibilities, which is even more evident in the virtual world’

“We expect a retail company in Europe working to personalise their customers’ experience to be more concerned about privacy than other firms, while a bank working on an AI system for customer financial advice would have considerations around fairness and transparency,” he said.

“In addition, government agencies have additional societal considerations such as equality and accessibility.”

Digital ethics trends

While challenges differ from sector to sector, Healy said there are some common themes emerging, especially in the area of remote working. With the mass shift to working from home over the last year, he said leaders must ensure they do not overstep when it comes to privacy and surveillance, even if tools allow it.

“In other words, with rights come responsibilities, which is even more evident in the virtual world,” he said.

Healy also highlighted the broader, more deep-seated digital ethics issues around how technology is designed. “We have already seen examples of bias coming from artificial intelligence applications in many areas of life whether it be finance, healthcare, law enforcement and so forth,” he said.

There have been several examples in recent years highlighting bias in AI, including an MIT image library that was withdrawn after researchers discovered that it contained racist and misogynistic terms that could be used in the training of machine learning models. Plenty of stakeholders have been attempting to address these issues, including the EU, UNESCO and individual companies.

However, Healy also highlighted a more optimistic trend within digital ethics, which is that people want to work for, shop with and invest in companies which they believe align with their personal values. “Companies that really take their corporate values to heart are seeing a competitive advantage and stronger brand value,” he said.

Many areas of digital ethics explore the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of topics such as data privacy and AI bias. But Healy said the societal impacts around those ethical areas also need to be addressed.

“We don’t pay enough attention to the psychological and emotional impacts of the technology we use,” he said.

“For example, the stress people feel when they feel like they’re under constant surveillance, the divisiveness of misleading online content that has been magnified by social media for the sake of engagement, and the unbelievably toxic attacks on women and minorities online.”

Healy also said the tech industry as a whole needs to examine its environmental impact as an ethical issue.

“Tech companies have prospered in an industry focused on growth, with customers eager for the latest gadgets and features,” he said.

“But that emphasis on growth and innovation often comes at the expense of quality, durability, and eventually the environment. As an industry, we’re only just starting to have honest conversations about this.”

What can leaders do?

Healy said business and tech leaders need to examine their company’s corporate values to help guide decisions when it comes to digital ethics.

“Often, it’s not a matter of ‘whether’ but ‘how’ to move forward with a digital initiative. And here we see that digital ethics has more to do with decisions, actions and behaviours than with the technology itself.”

Healy said that training and awareness is also key to building a digitally ethical culture. “This training should be reinforced through frequent conversations too, whether in planning sessions, design -thinking workshops, team check-ins, individual performance reviews. Digital ethics should also be a key design principle when it comes to any company strategy, initiative or technology development.

“Next, they should empower champions throughout the organisation to get involved. Beyond just tech, there are people from HR, marketing, sales, finance etc who have helpful skills and interest in these topics.”

Healy also recommended that leaders tie digital ethics to business benefits as often as possible, which could include making products more accessible, more diverse or more trusted. These ties could lead to a greater adoption, especially given the trend of customers gravitating towards products, workplaces and companies that align with their own values.

“Demonstrating that attention to digital ethics can have this kind of positive outcome on the business is likely going to be their best path to get more buy-in and support.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic