5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership (Part 1)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post is the first in a Series exploring 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership. It is being published in recognition of IoT Day on April 9th.

Introducing 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership

The Internet of Things (IoT) can enhance people’s lives in many new ways, and because of its enormous scale, it will alter our global economy and the way we do business. Unlike the software design projects of the past, working in the IoT takes us into completely uncharted ethical territory. While we are in the process of trying to understand the global challenges and opportunities that the IoT represents, we are using varying definitions of “ethics” and see our responsibilities in ways that vary from simply following laws to harnessing the power of the IoT to serve humanity and the public good.  

The IoT is Connected, Intelligent and Entering Unknown Territory

“A world where everything is connected, and everything is intelligent—that’s where IoT is heading.” Life, the Universe, and The Internet of Things, UMass Amherst, Electrical and Computer Engineering

“The IoT is advancing exponentially. Some even say we’re in the “knee of the curve,” which is the point where advancement happens so rapidly that its potential uses are beyond the reach of speculation.” Atlantic BT, 3 Threats and 3 Benefits of the Internet of Things

While it would be convenient to consider only the financial and legal implications of the IoT, that would not be a sufficient response, since the Iot will potentially directly impact every man, woman and child on the planet. It is an ecosystem-level challenge, and ecosystem-level problems require ecosystem-level thinking and solutions.

Whether serving the public good will become an achievable outcome of the IoT or not depends on the future we imagine and create. Will the IoT just extend the domain where greed and profit dominate, or will it become a space for outstanding ethical innovation and ethical brand value creation? I believe that the latter is possible if responsible actors in the IoT space recognize and seize the opportunity to use their collective design power to imagine and create a better, more connected world.

This paper makes the case for thinking holistically about the ethics of the IoT in ways that will help us find workable solutions for a complex, evolving globally-connected ecosystem of people and things. It proposes a spectrum of 5 important dimensions of the Ethics of IoT that are advocated by leaders in the field and cannot be ignored. Rather than looking at one area of ethical concern at a time, this paper proposes that we think about ethics in a multidimensional way to get a broader view. It is hoped that this holistic definition of the Ethics of IoT will help us collaborate on the various dimensions of responsibility using common terminology, reducing the chances that differences in our global interpretation of ethical action will derail our progress.

The five ethical dimensions explored in this paper are adapted from the 7-dimensional model in my book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.  “Ethics” as applied to The IoT will be broadly defined as: ethical design; legal compliance; protecting human life, rights, quality of life and privacy; being an ethical contributor to the broader IoT Ecosystem; and supporting the public good (designing for safety, well-being and a better life for future generations). We” as applied here will be defined as responsible actors in the IoT space who want to create a better future through ethical design and implementation. A multidimensional approach to the Ethics of IoT is urgently needed if we are to generate a best-case scenario – the infinite possibilities of the IoT combined with high level ethical awareness, concern and action, resulting in a highly functioning system with a positive impact.

Balancing the Promise and the Peril of the IoT
 
“Understanding how to balance the promise of IoT connected devices with potential security challenges will continue to be a mega-trend in the years to come.” Christy Pettey, The IoT Effect: Opportunities and Challenges, Gartner

Improving Ethical Foresight

The power of the IoT lies in the ability to create new technologies that improve people’s lives. Because the IoT is globally connected and based on human-enabled interface, creating those new technologies must be approached thoughtfully. While considering the market potential and creating innovative products, we must also carefully consider the ethical implications.

The IoT Is Vulnerable to Misuse

“I like to think of it as putting the internet where it doesn’t normally belong.”  Emily Gorcenski, The Ethics of the Internet of Things, JSConf EU

 “(A bill was) proposed last February to address security issues with IoT-connected cars. One of the senators who drafted the bill, Sen. Ed Markey stated, “We need the electronic equivalent of seat belts and airbags to keep drivers and their information safe in the 21st century.” Kate Smith, All About Circuits, IoT Security: Risks and Realities

“Embedded devices are often designed to be plugged in and forgotten after a very basic setup process…As a result, any compromise or infection of such devices may go unnoticed by the owner and this presents a unique lure for the remote attackers.”  Symantec, IoT devices being increasingly used for DDoS attacks

Francine Berman (a computer-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and longtime expert on computer infrastructure) asks the burning ethical questions about the Internet of Things, “Who’s responsible and who’s accountable, what does it mean to be ethical, and what does it mean to promote the public good? (Kaveh Waddell, The Internet of Things Needs a Code of Ethics, The Atlantic)” Part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the complexity of the IoT. It is ever-evolving and expanding, its growth driven by innovators and designers who are not all “working together” in any formal way.

Rob van Kranenburg, founder of the IoT Council, points out that the “IoT is also questioning the nature of security, privacy and safety, and the definition of these terms becomes plural: privacies, securities, safeties as the situation is no longer ported to only individual human identities but to communities of capabilities and resources” and requires defining “what is ‘ethical’ related to those communities.”

We know that the financial potential of the IoT is immense. The challenge is learning how to harness that potential by understanding the needs and expectations of consumers; ensuring that we are designing and developing responsible products that improve people’s lives; and using ethical foresight to anticipate and reduce the risk of negative outcomes. As part of every action and decision, we must anticipate the future doors we may be opening to an ethical pandora’s box.

This is Part 1 of a paper that is being shared as a weekly blog series. Part 2 will explore the 2nd of 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership.

Contributors:

Gerald Santucci and Rob van Kranenburg served as reviewers and contributed substantial feedback that helped shape this paper’s coherence and usefulness.

About the Author:

Linda Fisher Thornton is an author and leader in the field of ethical thinking and leadership. She helps executives, leaders and groups learn how to lead using the 7-dimensional model described in her book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership. Linda is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Applied Ethics and Global Leadership for the University of Richmond SPCS. Her website is www.LeadinginContext.com.

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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