Even the best inventions and intentions can result in unintended consequences. Email vastly improved many forms of communication and information sharing — but it also begat spam, phishing, and an entire industry in cybersecurity. Social media connected billions of people and spread democratic ideals — but it also wrought hacked accounts, stolen data, "fake news," and election meddling.
The same is true with today's "advanced technologies" that promise to revolutionize information gathering, data analytics, workplace mobility, and much more during the coming decade. The ethical considerations and possible regulation of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, and other advanced technologies are playing catch-up once again. Boards and C-suites need to pay more attention and take action to avoid bad outcomes.
The recent confrontation between the US and Iran is a case in point. Threats of cyber warfare along with conventional military action put security executives at every major organization on high alert and questioning what to do in the event of a breach. There are worries of vulnerabilities to the infrastructure and that attackers could be impossible to identify. Very few organizations are fully prepared to respond to an incident at an enterprise or organizational level. An effective response to a major cyber incident requires current, effective IT-focused cyber plans, but also participation from all lines of business and operational support areas to ensure a successful integrated, orchestrated recovery.
The benefits of advanced technologies to industry and commerce are manifold. In healthcare, robotic surgeries improve recovery rates and reduce days spent in the hospital. AI and machine learning boost productivity in the data-dependent financial services industry, increasing analytical efficiency while reducing manual work and human errors. The same goes for most industries.
But along with the benefits come the risks. Robotic surgery can result in errors, just as in manual surgery, because there is always a human element involved. The healthcare industry has shown itself particularly vulnerable to ransomware attacks, which continue to proliferate. In finance, bad data input can thwart the best AI. In transportation, we've already seen manifestations of the inherent risks of the highly touted "autonomous" vehicles. All of these examples contain cybersecurity risks because of their network connections.
Government is usually playing catch-up in the ethics, security, and regulation of advanced tech. Cybersecurity and data privacy were growing concerns and breaches were rampant long before the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect in Europe in 2018 to try to plug the holes in the proverbial security and privacy dikes. We still have no federal data privacy regulation in the US, although the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) will affect most companies in 2020. With advanced tech, we can expect unintended consequences that we may not be able to imagine.
Most federal lawmakers and regulators have only had exposure to advanced tech for maybe 20% of their lives and are hesitant to act before understanding the regulatory consequences in depth. So, it's generally left to the cognoscenti in business and the tech community to self-regulate, at least in the early days of any new technology.
As risk managers, we must think three steps ahead of the implementation of many advanced technologies. What could be the unintended consequences of deploying this technology? What are the business security and reputational risks to our organization? Is it legal and/or ethical if the tech helps us make our earnings look better than they may otherwise? Do the benefits sufficiently outweigh the risks to our enterprise?
I would like to recommend some best practices in assessing the ethical, security, and risk implications of advanced tech:
- Involve boards and C-suites early. Appoint a board-level committee to examine the risk, ethical, and beneficial implications of new tech. Don't delegate it to line managers, who lack the time, expertise, and incentives to do a strategic examination.
- Know your security environment and data. Build, maintain, and share your environment data model and security protocols with your executive team, operational team, and cyber incident response team.
- Avoid silos. Make sure your ethics review includes every department within your organization to demonstrate the risks and business impacts on the entire enterprise.
- Keep it simple. There is no need to dissect each line of code. Keep your focus on the key ethical and regulatory implications of any technology under review.
- Appoint an "ethics champion." Give him or her access to senior leadership and include the champion in all high-level discussions and actions on the ethics of advanced tech.
Examining the security and ethical standards of advanced tech can be a slippery slope. Self-regulation only works if self-regulators follow legal and ethical standards. As noted, GDPR and CCPA only came about in reaction to widespread cybersecurity breaches and threats. With any regulation, whistleblowers must not only be tolerated but listened to, protected, and sometimes encouraged.
To date, the results of self-regulation of data management and advanced technologies in many industries have been, at best, mixed. Witness the continuing data breaches and threats of nation-state cyber warfare. We have the guidelines and tools needed to do better. By carefully examining all of the potential consequences of implementing a new technology — and considering all of its ethical and security implications — we have the ability to minimize the risks associated with advanced technology.
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