Christopher Wylie’s evidence to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 27 March was unflinching in its reporting of the ways in which ICT can and has been misused. The revelations followed a series of articles by journalists at the Observer and a Channel 4 sting that supported Wylie’s claims.
Wylie – a former Cambridge Analytica coder who has now turned whistleblower – gave a gripping account of the way that, among other things, personal information harvested from over 50 million social media accounts was used to train algorithms and mine for data. This was used to target individuals and groups during high-profile campaigns such as the 2016 Brexit referendum and US election.
Wylie’s disclosures add fuel to the public conversation currently taking place around the ethics of information and communications technologies. They form part of a broader pattern of events and concerns which include data protection and breaches but also concerns about longer term societal impacts of emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles or artificial intelligence. In light of the increasing pace of development, society needs to find ways of identifying such concerns early and understanding different positions.
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is an approach to ICT development that considers outcomes and possible ethical issues at the earliest stage of work to try and ensure that safety and governance are built in from the ground up. The Framework for RRI in the UK is supported by the UK Research Councils.
Martin de Heaver, managing director of ORBIT (the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT), commented, “The evidence given to the DCMS was shocking but not all that surprising. Anyone who has ever requested a download of their data from Facebook will have been startled to see how much information is kept by this and other social media companies. That the information should have been misused in such a way only highlights the need to have discussions about outcomes at the earliest possible stage.”
Professor Bernd Stahl, co-founder of ORBIT, added, “Whilst there is no doubt about the positive impacts of technology on society, we need to remain aware of the challenges that ICT can present. It is time to consider seriously how these issues might be addressed at the research and development phase and to be more attentive to those projects where outcomes have been considered and best practice followed. RRI is not a magic bullet, but it provides a structured framework in which to consider the outcomes – both positive and negative – of ICT research. It enables a responsive and flexible perspective in anticipating the ways in which these technologies might affect our lives.”