Companies trying to reopen offices during the coronavirus pandemic face ethics and privacy questions about how they screen employees for potential health problems.
Some apps and data-collection systems probe for Covid-19 symptoms, such as fever or cough, and ask about an employee’s activities outside of work. But collecting and storing such detailed information can lead an organization to cross ethical boundaries, said Paula Goldman, chief ethical and humane use officer, at tech giant
“Covid presents a very, very interesting challenge for technology,” Ms. Goldman said, speaking at the WSJ Pro Artificial Intelligence Executive Forum on Wednesday. “Technology can help businesses reopen safely,” she said. “But all of the sudden, employers need personal health data that employees aren’t used to sharing.”
Common principles in ethical computing include collecting the minimum data needed to answer a question and storing it for a defined period, if at all, Ms. Goldman said. The European Union’s benchmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, reflects similar thinking.
When Salesforce built its work.com tool for contact tracing and wellness checks, translating those principles into code came down to “little decisions,” she said. For example, the tool can ask questions about symptoms and activities. Instead of recording each answer, the answers result in a “yes” or “no” conclusion about whether an individual can enter the office. As a result, specific symptoms aren’t associated with an employee, which preserves privacy, she said.
Preprogrammed settings on the tool provide such protections. This kind of “ethics by default” approach to technology will grow in coming years, Ms. Goldman predicted, comparing the situation with the development of the cybersecurity field.
Several years ago, few people imagined all the ways a bad actor could break into computer systems. As hacking increased, product developers added safeguards. Today, she said, no major product ships without them. Likewise, according to Ms. Goldman, matters of ethics eventually will be built into how products are conceived and built. “We’re in the early days of the same evolution with ethics.”
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