Ethics in Digital Public Services

This research explores ethical matters related to digital services, identifies ethical principles and provides policy recommendations associated with the application of emerging technologies for delivering digital services in the context of smart cities. It contributes to the Strategic Objective 4 of the UNESCO Information For All Programme (IFAP) Strategic Plan (UNESCO IFAP, 2017) in “Raising awareness of ethical issues related to information”. It was produced by the UNESCO Chair on Knowledge Societies and Digital Governance at Universidad Nacional del Sur, Argentina, supported by the UNESCO IFAP.

The research identifies ethical issues related to digital services by exploring seven scenarios: 1) use of drones, 2) autonomous cars, 3) automated medical diagnoses, 4) artificial intelligence applied in court sentences, 5) apps gathering health-related data, 6) personalized adverts, and 7) intelligent assistants for smart homes; and by gathering opinions from five recognized experts on the field. In particular, the report identifies examples of emerging technologies applied in the various scenarios, benefits obtained from their application, and threats related to their misuse and abuse. In summary, the report documents 32 challenges related to digital services (as summarized in Section 4.8), proposes five ethical principles (as described in Section 6) and summarizes six policy recommendations (as explained in Section 7). 

Main ethical challenges associated to digital services refer to the violation of privacy concerning personal data, lack of individual´s awareness for releasing personal data, misuse of the collected data, lack of explainability of algorithms implementing automated decision-making processes or in other words ensuring transparency and accountability of algorithms, assigning responsibility for automated decision-making, dealing with existing bias in data used by software algorithms, ensuring efficient data management, lack of human-capacity to make informed decisions related to the use of  technology, risk of manipulating user´s opinions, risk of polarizing society, and lack of social consensus to  enforce ethical principles based on society’s value system. 

The five ethical principles proposed to underpin digital service design and delivery include:

  • P1) Respect for individual´s privacy
  • P2) Effective data management and secure use of collected data
  • P3) Explainability of automated decisions
  • P4) Good purpose and equity
  • P5) Social consensus and legal enforcement

The following six policy recommendations were synthesized: 

  • R1) Institutionalize the definition and fulfillment of ethical principles in digital public services
  • R2) Raise citizens´ awareness about personal data and their use and misuse in digital services
  • R3) Promote citizen participation in defining ethical principles in digital public services
  • R4) Define standards and guidelines about persona data management for government institutions
  • R5) Define university courses, to be taught to students of various disciplines, for developing ethics-related competencies for the digital world
  • R6) Promote international awareness and collaboration in digital services

Download the report below.