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The Question of Ethics in Information Technology Research
By: Angela Long

October 18, 2005

On Friday October 14, 2005, the Globe and Mail posted an article from the New York Times News Service entitled “Korea’s High-Tech Utopia, Where Everything is Observed”. The piece describes a city being built from the ground up in South Korea, which is being touted as the world’s first ubiquitous city (U-City). New Songdo, an island, is not far from Seoul, South Korea’s capital. It is financially backed by large corporations and, unlike other attempts to create U-Cities, is a for-profit venture. The infrastructure of the city will be created by Songdo U-Life, a partnership of powerful American and Korean corporate interests, including mega-corporation LG. Other businesses will then be able to test their technologies in the city without having to spend money on costly infrastructure set-up. These technologies will contribute to the U-Life-style that is being marketed. All information systems within the city will share data with one another. In addition, the technology will potentially be able to monitor any and all kinds of citizen activity. The possibilities, given the chance for profit, are almost limitless. For instance, the article states:

Imagine public recycling bins that use radio-frequency identification technology to credit recyclers every time they toss in a bottle; pressure-sensitive floors in the homes of older people that can detect the impact of a fall and immediately contact help; cellphones that store health records and can be used to pay for prescriptions.

In addition to data sharing, citizen convenience is key. Each resident will get their own smart-card, which will allow them to do almost anything within the city, from unlocking their house to riding the subway or seeing a movie.

New Songdo is scheduled for completion in 2014. The city will be home to approximately 65,000 people and 300,000 will work there. Life there will be full of creature comforts, with top-notch amenities and attractions such as parklands, an aquarium, a golf course and American style hospitals and schools. As the title of the article states, New Songdo sounds like a utopia of sorts, where convenience and comfort are key. But is it really?

The New Songdo U-City project can be criticized for many things, such as the lack of privacy that citizens will have with technology tracing their every move or the lack of anonymity that they will have to become accustomed to living in a city where information is shared widely by all sectors. However, as the article states, people are already lining up to move to New Songdo once it becomes operational. If they know what they are in for and move there voluntarily, does this change our view of the privacy concerns raised by the city? Some may argue that those who chose to live in New Songdo have consented to the use of surveillance technology and ubiquitous computing. But this raises a different set of concerns, concerns about the validity of such consent from an ethical perspective. Do they actually know what they are signing up for?

Looking at the issue this way likens it to a research ethics problem, the kind we see all the time in medicine. Just as the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries test their products on human subjects, so will the information technology companies in New Songdo. Put this way, the future residents of New Songdo are being used as human guinea pigs in this vast technological project, a project with undetermined scope and outcome. Indeed, B.J. Fogg, the Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University was quoted in the article as stating, “New Songdo sounds like it will be one big Petri dish for understanding how people want to use technology.” If one is to look at New Songdo as an experiment involving the citizens who live and work there, perhaps the better question to ask is whether, ethically, they can be used for such a purpose and whether the project itself is in line with research ethics standards. Traditionally questions about the ethicality of using human subjects for research in the field of information technology have received little attention compared to the field of medical technology, where systems of ethical approval and monitoring have been long-standing. But with the explosion of new information technologies, proposed large-scale experiments such as that of New Songdo and all of the risks that such technologies pose to humans, research ethics ought to figure more prominently in public debates.

A familiar starting point for research ethics in the medical context is the principle of informed consent, meaning that those being subjected to the research must be informed of the potential risks and benefits of the experiment and must provide their consent based on such knowledge. Without the informed consent of the human subjects involved, the research is not considered ethical. It is not clear whether the question of informed consent has been considered by those creating New Songdo. Looking at the official New Songdo website, it would appear that choosing to live in New Songdo would be the wisest choice one could ever make. A promotional movie extols the virtues life in the city in a Hollywood fashion; booming business, golf, foreign schools, shopping and health care. Disturbingly, however, no mention is made of the attendant risks that the project brings to those subjected to it, such as the constant surveillance or gathering and large-scale sharing of personal information. Without such disclosure, residents cannot be said to consent to the use of these technologies and as such the research itself is not ethical.

Informed consent is not the only ethical principle that would be implicated in information technology research. Looking at Canada’s Tri-Council Policy Statement on Research Involving Human Subjects (TCPS), which is representative of the kinds of ethical principles that are in place worldwide, it is easy to see that many of the principles contained therein are relevant to information technology, such as respect for personal privacy and autonomy and the avoidance of conflicts of interest. In a for-profit venture such as New Songdo, financial conflicts of interest seem inevitable and require greater scrutiny to protect the interests of the research subjects who are being utilized as a medium for financial gain.

The need for ethical guidance and standards in the field of information technology is slowly gaining recognition. In Canada, the National Research Council’s Institute for Information Technology is studying research ethics in the context of human-computer interactions, as current guidelines, such as the TCPS, do not adequately cover this kind of research. Interestingly, the NRC stated that other countries, such as the US and Australia already have guidelines covering human subject research in the context of information technology. Given the existence of such guidelines in the US, it becomes clear why the New Songdo experiment, with heavy US financial backing and technological expertise, is taking place in South Korea and not in the US itself. Simply put, ethical guidelines governing this kind of research in the US would likely make the implementation of an experiment of this magnitude exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, an obstacle that was implied by the article:

Much of this technology was developed in U.S. research labs, but there are fewer social and regulatory obstacles to implementing them in Korea…There is an historical expectation of less privacy.

The practice of taking research off-shore in order to avoid compliance with ethical standards in one’s own jurisdiction is common within medical research, most notably within the pharmaceutical industry. The practice of forum shopping in the pharmaceutical context has led to increased pressure to internationalize ethical standards so that all human research subjects will receive the same protection, regardless of their jurisdiction.

The parallels between the information technology research in New Songdo and medical research, such as within the pharmaceutical industry are strong; both involve human subjects; both are motivated by monetary profit; both involve the risk of significant harm, even though the kinds of harm may be different (ie. the biggest risks in medical research tend to be health and safety related, while those within information technology research tend to be privacy and security related). In addition, we also see the information technology industry taking a similar road as the medical technology industry, in moving their research out of jurisdictions with ethical hurdles that would be impossible to jump. These parallels highlight the need for increased research ethics scrutiny within information technology research and for the establishment of clear international ethical guidelines that would project the interests of human subjects involved.

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