On Global Ethics Day 2022, I reflect on progress made with embedding ethical conduct and decision-making into everything to do with the development and provision of IT and Digital products and services, and its wider application in business.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of trust is “Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” We should also consider a definition of “Duty of Care” – Professional standard of care. The ethical or legal duty of a professional to exercise the level of care, diligence, and skill prescribed in the code of practice (or ethics) of his or her profession, or as other professionals in the same discipline would in the same or similar circumstances.

Digital transformation affects every aspect of our lives.  When trust in digital products and services is eroded it affects the economy and hinders the provision of digital services to citizens.

We must get to a point where every activity is considered through an ethical lens – and the end goal is to make this second nature, or put another way, an “unconscious competence”. We like to say ethical behaviour must be “operationalized” in an organization.

Some member bodies have Ethics Exams. This is a good idea to ensure that people understand what ethics is, and where applicable, the stipulations of the relevant code of ethics – but this does not ensure that ethical behaviour is entrenched.

Examples of unethical behaviour and the consequences abound, with an emphasis on ethics relating to innovative technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. This is all well and good, but I worry that it detracts from the necessity for ethical rigour to be embedded into the development and deployment of all digital (IT) services.

Data governance is frequently considered but mostly in relation to AI – whereas data governance relates to organizational governance and is important for all data. Organizational reports on, for example, sustainability, must be assured. This is only possible with rigorous data practices. The governance of ethics is recognised by organizations as an essential component to deliver value to their stakeholders.  Devon Duffield, head of Audit for KPMG South Africa, says “The best thing that board directors can do for themselves, and their companies, is to have an equal commitment to developing a corporate culture with strong ethical values, as they do to planning and strategizing the company’s future. “

“Information systems embracing digital technologies should serve the needs and interests of the people who design and use them, and this may in the end curtail their pure computational efficiency.  Take the case of self-driving vehicles: perennially available ‘next year’ these autonomous devices cannot safely co-exist with the all too human world of ‘the street’ and continue to be indefinitely deferred.  The lesson here is that the governance of data and systems by humans, rather than by algorithms, may be the limit that we must place upon them” – David Kreps, Chair IFIP TC9.

The International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) launched a Code of Ethics in 2020. The ACM Code of Ethics was used as the foundation for this code, which was finalised after consultation with members globally, to ensure that it was applicable everywhere. IFIP encourages its member societies to adopt this code – with or without amendments. Similarly, we would like to see any organization or government to implement this code for their IT employees. IFIP offers consultancy services to help organizations operationalize the code.

We must acknowledge that a code of ethics, in contrast to a code of conduct, is qualitative. This makes it difficult to measure and is why it must be part of the corporate culture, with executives setting the tone from the top.

How do we create a more ethical society? Well, I believe that if I am ethical and encourage one other person to be the same, and they in turn influence the behaviour of one other person, then it is achievable. But it starts with you!

Moira de Roche, IFIP Vice-President, Chair IP3