VIRT-EU project: executive summary

This report provides an overview of the key findings from the VIRT-EU research project (“Values and Ethics in Innovation for Responsible Technology in Europe”). The recently completed project, steered by six academic research institutions, has examined ethical concerns in the design and development of ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies. Tomorrow’s technology is challenging personal data protection regulations currently in place, as they are not designed to protect societies in times of an all surrounding connectivity with IT devices. In order to address emerging issues in the IoT innovation, this research assessed ethical behaviour of IoT producers (innovators, developers, etc). Understanding the production stage in this supply chain has been seen as a promising starting point to guide future IoT innovation towards being more compliant with ethical values in Europe.

IoT technology is rapidly evolving and the number of new products brought to the market is growing exponentially year over year. From mobile phones tracking a user’s location at every step, smart home devices analysing every movement in your own four walls, to wearables such as the Google Glass prototype augmenting reality – the Internet of Things utilizes Big Data to grow touch points around every human behaviour. Yet as this technical evolution is seen as beneficial for more effective and efficient communication and logistics, the continuous interconnectivity between humans and IT artifacts holds risks of breaching data privacy regulations or negatively affecting citizens living together in a society.

Cases as South Korea, currently leading worldwide in IoT technology, show that possibly not far from now smart individuals will live in smart housing complexes in smart cities. With enormous amounts of big data sets around human activity stored in clouds, regulating bodies are facing new challenges. Policymakers have to do the splits between empowering the growth of this new technology but also setting limitations at the very same time. If there will be no effective governance in the evolution of IoT in our society, data privacy is at risk, also in Europe where personal data protection is highly valued.

European policymakers have to build a guiding ecosystem for the development and design of the Internet of Things, otherwise the technological innovation will evolve far off European ethical, societal and cultural values.

In order to solve the root of the problem governance has to be located at the root of the production – in IoT these are innovators and entrepreneurs as well as software and hardware engineers. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is currently assessed as ineffective to cope with those risks, as it is focusing on setting up restrictions on what is allowed and what is not. A reactive action plan can only reduce risks, not solve them.

Overall, a change in perspective of policymakers is needed towards building an ethical design and development framework that steers IoT innovation into a compliant direction with European values. Developers need to be provided with services and tools that encourage their critical self-assessment questioning they are doing the right things, when making decisions about data sets and coding scripts. Guiding IoT producers but also empowering IoT consumers to self-assessment by affective technology governance in Europe is key to consolidate innovation management in an ethical way.


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