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Ethics in Technology and the Future of Human Dignity


Every day we move faster into a future where our reality—from big data analytics to ubiquitous surveillance—appears to outpace the law. If we wish to live in a world which balances the benefits of unimaginably powerful innovations against our right to privacy and what it means to be freely human, we need to have discussions about the ethical implications of these technologies.

Fortunately, there are active discussions underway in both the European Union and the United States on the topics of data, human dignity, and technology. By engaging in these discussions, we can support the ethical underpinnings of future laws, regulations, and best practices which will govern a civil society. We can support a movement towards Privacy for Humans, where we are treated with honor and respect, and as more than just data sets.

Defining Dignity in the Age of Big Data

A recent opinion from the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Giovanni Buttarelli, takes a comprehensive view of the future we face and what it will mean to maintain human dignity. In “Towards a New Digital Ethics: Data, Dignity and Technology,” Buttarelli concludes it is time to broaden and deepen the discussion on these topics. In the paper he writes:

“In today’s digital environment, adherence to the law is not enough; we have to consider the ethical dimension of data processing. … Data protection principles have proven capable of safeguarding individuals and their privacy from the risks of irresponsible data processing. But today’s trends may require a completely fresh approach. So we are opening a new debate to what extent the application of the principles such as fairness and legitimacy is sufficient.”

Buttarelli’s survey of data and technology covers Big Data (“the practice of combining huge volumes of diversely sourced information and analyzing them, often using self-learning algorithms to inform decisions”), the “Internet of Things,” ambient and cloud computing, personal data-dependent business models, drones and autonomous vehicles, as well as a far-reaching view into 3D bioprinting and artificial intelligence.

As Buttarelli sees it, human dignity and the accordant right to privacy are under direct threat from these advancements if we do not adopt systems to protect ourselves.

From the opinion:

“The notion of personal data itself is likely to change radically as technology increasingly allows individuals to be re-identified from supposedly anonymous data. In addition, machine learning and the merging of human and artificial intelligence will undermine concepts of the individual’s rights and responsibility.”

Human dignity is rooted in the belief that all individuals are created equal, independent and different, and that dignity requires a respect for that individuality. Privacy abuses deplete an individual’s ability to maintain that dignity. In Buttarelli’s view, there needs to be a “big data protection ecosystem” to respond to the engineering, philosophical, legal, and moral implications of this challenge. Specifically, he sees the need for:

1. Future-oriented regulation of data processing and respect for the rights to privacy and to data protection.

2. Accountable controllers who determine personal information processing.

3. Privacy conscious engineering and design of data processing products and services.

4. Empowered individuals.


The EDPS is not alone in this view. As Martin Abrams of the Information Accountability Foundation (IAF), a global information policy think tank, writes in response to Buttarelli’s September 11, 2015 opinion:

“One can neither regulate nor manage big data solely to prevent harmful avarice or to encourage dignity-enhancing uses of data to create new insights. Internal models and external regulation and enforcement that achieve both ends are needed. With that goal in mind, I have personally worked on big data governance for the last eight years. “The Unified Ethical Frame” was envisioned with that goal in mind. In our upcoming paper on internal and external enforcement of big data processes (October 2015), the IAF will raise the issues which need to be resolved to assure big data enhances our humanity rather than depleting individuality.”

Common Interests, Different Laws

While the issue of human dignity versus technology is important in both the US and the EU, it’s interesting to note that there are significant differences between EU and US law when it comes to privacy and control of personal information. Buttarelli and Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), spoke recently in a World Affairs Council video conversation, “Our Lives Online: US vs. EU.” The conversation centers on how policies differ in Europe and America and how individuals can better understand their rights and limit the amount of personal data being collected.

A common ethical framework will help us align our values as a society. As Jules Polonestky and Joseph Jerome of the Future of Privacy Forum write in their article “Ethics and Privacy in the Data-Driven World”:

“Formalizing an ethical review process will give companies an outlet to weigh the benefits of data use against a larger array of risks. It provides a mechanism to formalize data stewardship and move away from a world where companies are largely forced to rely on the “gut instinct” of marketers or the C-Suite.”

The key takeaway: incorporating a formal data ethics policy “will allow companies to innovate while protecting individual privacy and security.”

Making Ethics Part of Our Privacy Practice

We all have an obligation to integrate moral principles into our privacy practice. As individuals, we can take social responsibility, integrating discernment into our process of choosing the companies and institutions we engage with. Companies should incorporate ethical considerations by adopting privacy by design principles, and looking for ways to engender consumer trust by going beyond required basic legal and compliance requirements.

Where will you join the conversation about data, technology, and dignity?

“In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.” Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court
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