AI-Ethics: Does every organization need an Ethics Officer?

By Erik de Ruiter

Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" outlines a dystopian vision of the future in which a few individuals can predict crimes before they happen. Interesting, but what if these predictions are wrong, as happened in the film on occasion? These kinds of questions are now commonplace outside of Hollywood. Thanks to advanced computer technology, increasingly sophisticated algorithms are being developed. The past decade has taught us that risk in its application has not always received the attention it needed in hindsight. For example, "Follow The Money" recently revealed that until 2015, the Dutch police used an algorithm that estimated the risk of criminal behavior based in part on ethnicity. This could lead to preventive and repressive measures such as a person-centered approach. A person-centered approach can mean faster police action, such as preventive searches, confiscating money and valuables, and even providing mandatory care. In addition, families can be intervened with to prevent other family members, such as siblings, from taking the wrong path as well. Organizations have also used predictive algorithms in other public initiatives, such as SyRI and the benefits affair, sometimes with far-reaching consequences.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, such as Chat-GPT, we can analyze huge data sets and identify patterns. However, the increasing power of AI also makes it challenging to assess the ethical aspects of an algorithm.

While predictive systems can be valuable, proper oversight is essential to prevent (unintended) abuses. Given the complexity of these systems, I emphasize the importance of data ethics within public organizations, especially when combined with AI. We call this AI-ethics. This can start with the appointment of a data ethics specialist, with which the organization formally invests this responsibility. In this article, therefore, I discuss the role of a Data Ethics Officer.

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What does the job of a Data Ethics Officer entail?

A Data Ethics Officer, sometimes also referred to as Chief Data Ethics Officer (CDEO), bears responsibility for upholding the ethical standards within an organization in all of its actions and decisions. This means that this professional oversees and guides decision-making that is in line with the organization's ethical principles.

With respect to data use, a Data Ethics Officer ensures that the organization collects, analyzes and applies data with integrity. Here, the core values of one's organization are central, for example, privacy, equality, transparency and fairness. Once it is not clear in the organization what these values are, the Data Ethics Officer will look for a way to bring them to the surface.

The Data Ethics Officer's role is not merely advisory. This professional should actively form and implement policies, provide training and engage in dialogue with both internal teams and external stakeholders such as citizens and other actors affected by a data application to ensure that data ethics is deeply embedded in the organizational culture.

Within (semi) public institutions, the Data Ethics Officer will have an even more prominent role. Here, citizen trust is paramount, making it essential to handle data and related ethical issues with extreme care and transparency.

Why a Data Ethics Officer?

There are many advantages for (semi) public organizations:

1. Citizen-centric: In line with the trend of citizen-centricity, an ethical approach ensures that their interests are better protected. This can prevent a lot of misery for citizens because unwanted effects are prevented.

2. Risk reduction: An ethical approach reduces the chance of scandals that can be costly in the long run, both financially and for the image of the organization.

3. Transparency to citizens: An ethical approach increases transparency, which in turn creates trust among citizens.

4. Strategic advantage: Organizations that know how to properly address ethical issues have a competitive advantage and are better prepared for future challenges and regulations.

5. WRR Opinion: The Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) recommends that the government increase knowledge about AI within the civil service. The reason is that with the application of AI, it is becoming increasingly complicated to fathom why a system makes a particular decision. Hiring a Data Ethics Officer can help fulfill this call.

But are there also risks? Absolutely. It is essential to be vigilant so that ethics oversight does not become just a "paper tiger". And yes, some policy initiatives may be delayed or even abandoned because of ethical considerations. However, with the right structure and support, these risks are more than outweighed by the benefits.

How do I make such a Data Ethics Officer a success?

1. Formalization: Just as a privacy officer or CISO has a permanent role within organizations, so should a Data Ethics Officer.

2. Mandate and Differentiation: This role must be given authority, whether it be decision-making authority or the giving of heavy-handed advice. In addition, the organization should differentiate between day-to-day ethics issues and general issues reviewed by an ethics committee, for example.

3. Policy development: The Data Ethics Officer drafts policies around digital ethics issues and actively pursues these issues within the organization.

4. Oversight: To ensure that policies are effectively implemented, the Data Ethics Officer must ensure that they are actually followed. This prevents the position from being successful only in theory.

5. Awareness: The entire organization must be aware of the ethical considerations when deploying data. Every work proposal should include an ethical paragraph in addition to a legal, sustainability and financial one.

In the digital age, ethical oversight is not an option but a requirement. The public sector must be at the forefront of this. Let's learn from the past and strive for a future where data use, AI and ethics go hand in hand. Aithics, in other words.