5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership (Part 2)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This is Part 2 in a Series exploring 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership in celebration of IoT Day on April 9th. Part 1 included an Introduction and the importance of Ethical Foresight. Part 2 explores the 1st Ethical Dimension of IoT Leadership: Ethical Design.

5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership


The IoT offers incredible opportunities for value creation and financial benefit for those who understand the risks, responsibilities and potential rewards. Many innovators are seeing the financial potential and moving to take advantage of the opportunity, seeing the IoT as a potentially unlimited new financial frontier. Making a profit responsibly in the IoT space, however, will require much more than just technological know-how. It will also require a clear understanding of laws and consumer expectations, and sensitivity to the inherent ethical risks and implications.

Ethical Design Requires Awareness and Accountability
“Every connected thing is susceptible to attack or misuse. In September 2016 at DEF CON, one of the world’s largest security conferences, 47 vulnerabilities affecting 23 IoT-enabled items (door locks, wheelchairs, thermostats and more) from 21 manufacturers were disclosed.”
Pew Research Center, The Internet Connectivity Binge: What Are the Implications?

“Responsibility, transparency, auditability, incorruptibility, predictability, and a tendency to not make innocent victims scream with helpless frustration: all criteria that apply to humans performing social functions; all criteria that must be considered in an algorithm intended to replace human judgment of social functions; all criteria that may not appear in a journal of machine learning considering how an algorithm scales up to more computers.” Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky, The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Intelligence Research Institute

“Some companies are actually still working in the space where they just want to innovate, and they just want to build things, and ship things, and they will deal with the consequences later. But you have to ask yourself: do I want to be responsible for that?  That’s what ethics is all about.”    Emily Gorcenski, The Ethics of the Internet of Things, JSConf EU

The IoT is incredibly useful for human convenience, but since ethics isn’t already in the interface between people, data, devices and networks, ethical design is needed to protect human life, rights, quality of life and privacy. Dr. Vinton G. Cerf, Google Vice President, says, “We are entering an era in which software will make decisions for us that once we made for ourselves.” (Responsible Engineering and The Internet of Things, CIO Review) Dr. Cerf says “I tell my engineers that they have a basic ethical responsibility to build in safety checks and security mechanisms to protect innocent users.” Mark Jafee, CEO of Prelert, adds that “the only way to keep up with this IoT-generated data and gain the hidden insight it holds is with machine learning…systems that can learn from data, rather than follow only explicitly programmed instructions.” (IOT Won’t Work Without Artificial Intelligence, Wired.com)

As we look at the potential of the IoT to make our customers’ lives easier, we should also see the potential for harm – the IoT thinks for us, but lacks ethics until we design it in.” —- Linda Fisher Thornton

If we do not consistently apply ethical design, we will find ourselves in a situation where our advanced technology is harming us. As Ian Bogost explains, “Engineers bear a burden to the public, and their specific expertise as designers and builders of bridges or buildings—or software—emanates from that responsibility” (Ian Bogost, Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers, The Atlantic).

By taking positive action in response to the ethical issues of the IoT, software engineers can take the lead in creating an ethical IoT and collectively orchestrate solutions that are ethical, timely, safe and considered essential for daily life.

This is Part 2 in a continuing weekly series about 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership. Part 3 will explore the 2nd dimension.


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.

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