Better ethical approaches for individuals, businesses and organisations doesn’t just make moral sense. The financial benefits are massive, too.

It might seem a little ironic to take ethics advice from an intelligence agency that consciously deploys deception, yet it shows why access to ethical advice is vitally important. Indeed, we argue that the example of an ethics counsellor within ASIS demonstrates why every organisation should have (access to) an ethical adviser.

Ethics is often considered to be a personal or private activity, in which an individual makes decisions guided by an ethical code, compass or frame of reference. However, emerging technologies necessitate consideration of how ethics apply “at scale”.

Whether we are conscious of this (or not), ethical decisions are being made at the “back end” – or programming phase – but may not be visible until an outcome or decision, or user action, is reached at the other end of the process.

Miah Hammond-Errey describes in her book, Big Data, Emerging Technologies and Intelligence: National Security Disrupted, how “ethics at scale” is being driven by algorithms that seek to replicate human decision-making processes.

This includes unavoidable ethical dimensions, at increasing levels of speed, scope and depth – often in real time.

The concept of ethics at scale means that the context and culture of the companies and countries that created each algorithm, and the data they were trained on, increasingly shapes decisions at an individual, organisation and nation-state level.

Emerging technologies are likely to be integrated into work practices in response to the world itself becoming more complex. Yet, those same technologies may themselves make the ethical landscape even more complex and uncertain.

The three co-authors recently discussed the nexus of ethics, technology and intelligence, concluding there are three essential elements that must be acknowledged.

First, ethics matter. They are not an optional extra. They are not something to be “bolted on” to existing decision-making processes. Ethics matter: for our own personal sense of peace, to maximise the utility of new technologies, for social cohesion and its contribution to national security and as an expression of the values and principles we seek to uphold as a liberal democracy.

Second, there is a strong economic case for investing in the ethical infrastructure that underpins trust in and the legitimacy of our public and private national intuitions. A 10 per cent improvement in ethics in Australia is estimated to lead to an increase in the nation’s GDP of $45 billion per annum. This research also shows improving the ethical reputation of a business can lead to a 7 per cent increase in return on investment. A 10 per cent improvement in ethical behaviour is linked with a 2.7 to 6.6 per cent increase in wages.

Third, ethical challenges are only going to increase in depth, frequency and complexity as we integrate emerging technologies into our existing social, business and government structures. Examples of areas already presenting ethical risk include: using AI to summarise submissions to government, using algorithms to vary pricing for access to services for different customer segments or perhaps using new technologies to identify indicators of terrorist activity. That’s before we even get to novel applications employing neurotechnology such as brain computer interfaces.

Ethical challenges are, of course, not new. Current examples driven by new and emerging technologies include privacy intrusion, data access, ownership and use, increasing inequality and the impact of cyber physical systems.

However, an extant need for ethical rumination is, for now at least, a human endeavour.

As a senior leader of ASIS, with a background in the military, Major General Paul Symon (retd) strongly supported resourcing a (part-time) ethics counsellor. He was aware the act of cultivating agents, and the tradecraft involved, would inevitably demand moral enquiry by the most accomplished ASIS officers.

His belief was without a solid understanding of ethics, there was no standard against which the actions of the profession, or the choices of individuals, could be measured.

So, a relationship emerged with the Ethics Centre. A compact of sorts. Any officer facing an ethical dilemma was encouraged to speak confidentially to the ethics counsellor. The conversation and the moral reasoning were important.

General Symon guaranteed no career detriment to anyone who “opted out” of an activity so long as they had fleshed out their concerns with the ethics counsellor. Often, an officer’s concerns were allayed following discussion, and they proceeded with an activity knowing there was a justification both legally and ethically.

Perhaps if we’d had ethical advisers available across other institutions, we might have prevented some of the greatest moral failures of recent times, such as the pink batts deaths and robodebt.

If we had ethical advisers accessible to industry, then perhaps we’d have avoided the kind of misconduct revealed in multiple royal commissions looking into everything from banking and finance to the treatment of veterans to aged care.

We believe our work over years, including examples in defence and intelligence, demonstrates practical examples and the requirement to build our national capacity for ethical decision-making supported by sound, disinterested advice. That is one reason we support the establishment of an Australian Institute for Applied Ethics with the independence and reach needed to work with others in lifting our national capacity in this area.


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This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.

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