The following two ESRC scoping questions were put to the Ways of Being Digital project’s steering group, which consists of experts from the digital field with backgrounds in academia and the public and private sectors:

  1. What are the challenges of ethics, trust and consent in the digital age?
  2. How do we define responsibility and accountability in the digital age?

Whilst recognising the potential that digital technologies might bring to governance, experts reported that current thinking about the domain of governance and security in the digital age is still at an early stage – a relatively new environment that demands the reassessment of current knowledge about governance and security in the context of digital technologies. This is reflected in the following comment: “Who can speak and who can’t, no one knows, time and effort needs to go into figuring this out, framing the code and the governance is just as important as the content it facilitates.”

Experts who contributed their thoughts to this domain pointed out that it will be difficult to counterbalance the excitement that comes from being able to spread unfiltered ideas across the world against the realisation that this might allow malevolent, criminal, etc. ideas to take hold.  There are security risks linked to use of digital media, there are new points of control and there are new points of power, e.g. the owners of social media platforms.

Experts highlighted that ethical issues exist around security and security technology – for instance, individual privacy, terrorism prevention, surveillance and the use of biometrics and other security technologies, data sharing, data mining, data storage and data fusion, etc.

Authentication was brought to our notice, partly because it is a process increasingly carried out by machines and is crucial to secure communication. The rising momentum of the ‘Internet of things’, whereby almost anything can exchange data over a network, means that every access point becomes an incursion point with the possibility of being breached.  In the event of this happening – and we know it might – then damage has to be limited. Telemedicine, for example, is a sensitive area where password-based authentication just does not provide enough security.

The notion that technology has the capacity to greatly improve all aspects of governance is widely believed and big technology companies now offer a myriad of ICT solutions to hard-pressed local governments as they struggle to meet the demand for increased services. While the increase in public services being transacted online brings many benefits, such as easy, anytime access, the process also gives rise to enormous amounts of digital data, offering further analytical opportunities but also some issues.  Although it is not always clear if this digital information can provide insights capable of informing better, more targeted (and cheaper) services, there continues to be confidence that clever algorithms and computer analysts hold the key to improved governance.

The UK Government has yet to publish a Digital Strategy and we invite commentators to tell us what they think should be included. If you can provide evidence or point us to research that illuminates any of the issues raised here, then please contact the project team.