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Digital Ethics and your Online Privacy

Software developers, apps, websites, wearable devices and big business. Are you really being informed about your privacy and where we are going?

If there is one truth in this world, it is that we are living in the digital age.

With the unprecedented development and affordability of even the most advanced digital technologies, there is no arguing against the fact that technology is shaping the social and cultural evolution of society. Whilst some of these technologies have been used for the betterment of society, we have failed to keep up when considering the ethical implications of such technologies.

Most of us are aware that every time we turn on our computers or our smartphones we leave a trail of digital footprints. But have you ever considered how such data could be used against you?

What if your Fitbit data determined your private health insurance premium? What about storing your patients phone numbers in your smart phone and Facebook starts to recommending them to your friends based on geo location and you have a common contact?

Are you okay with an online booking company (for flights, accommodation, holidays or restaurants) returning a message saying they have “no availability” because you’ve privately been adversely profiled through an automated algorithm.

You would likely be outraged if you heard such news, but it’s not that far from reality. With the technical power behind websites, apps and wearable devices, businesses are utilising data to evaluate and plan their business growth. But when does this step out of the realm of good business sense and become a breach of your privacy?

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published a story outing local universities for tracking students movements on campus through their mobile phones. University representatives claimed this to be vital in “improving retention rates and the student experience”. A valid desire, but at what cost? Those responding to the article seem to believe the cost is great. One commenter responded with “As usual, ostensibly good reasons for privacy breaches are trotted out; but, as usual, full disclosure, transparency, and appropriate consent is not sought. Seems to be a recurring theme in Australia, and elsewhere, nowadays. Rather dismaying, genuinely frightening, and yet another example of technologic ability out-pacing proper analysis.”

Such responses of shock and anger are fair evidence of the harming effects of privacy breaches. If we are not provided with clear explanations of how our data can be used, how can we make informed decisions about what we choose to engage with?

Unfortunately, such activity isn’t that uncommon. In 2012, researchers from Facebook and Cornell University assessed the effect of emotional contagion in social media by manipulating the newsfeeds of 700,000 Facebook users. They increased users' exposure to positive or negative messages, and assessed whether this impacted the frame of mind in which users posted themselves. The study sparked outrage, with some arguing that the social media giant was in turn manipulating the moods of their users. 

Such examples of digital privacy breaches are clear evidence of the greater need for transparency by those we engage with online. If such companies believe their actions are morally sound, then there should be no need for secrecy.

Unfortunately, regulating such activity in the ever-expanding cyberspace is easier said than done. Nevertheless, until transparency is better enforced and made available, we must all take responsibility and consider the implications when engaging with the online realm.

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