Privacy and ethics in a digital age

Theoretical and legal conversations about the relationship between technology and privacy when it comes to their association with emerging technologies are at best ambiguous, illusory, subtle and volatile. It’s therefore important to point out from the beginning that although a widely accepted definition of privacy around emerging technologies remains elusive, there has indeed been more consensus on the recognition that privacy comprises multiple dimensions. In this context of ambiguity and evolving technologies, it is helpful to use frameworks to guide a mutual understanding and discussion.

Some of the main privacy issues have already been identified by more recent commentators like Jeffrey Rosen in his work entitled ‘A Twenty-First Century Framework for Digital Privacy’ as he outlines the stark challenges that emerging technologies pose to our privacy and security as European and global citizens. We'll take a brief overview of seven significant, identified areas of privacy, relevant to our daily lives, that are being affected by the emerging technologies we have already discussed in chapters 1 to 4.

1. Privacy of the person

This encompasses the right to keep one's biological information (such as genetic code or biometrics) private. Personal privacy contributes to individual feelings of freedom and helps to support a healthy, well-adjusted democratic society.

2. Privacy of behaviour and action

This includes sensitive issues such as political activities and religious practices. However, the notion of privacy of personal behaviour also concerns activities that happen in public spaces. From entertainment, to purchases, to dating activities, the privacy of our behaviour is at increased risk of exposure in a digital world.

3. Privacy of communication

This aims to avoid the interception of, or the interposing or interference with, communications, including mail interception, the use of bugs, directional microphones, mobile or wireless communication interception or recording, and access to e-mail or other media messages.

4. Privacy of data and images

This includes concerns about making sure that individuals’ data is not automatically available to other individuals and organisations and that people can exercise a substantial degree of control over that data and its use.

5. Privacy of thoughts and feelings

This concerns people’s right not to share their thoughts or feelings or to have those thoughts or feelings revealed. Individuals should have the right to think whatever they like. Such creativity of thoughts and feelings benefits society because it helps maintain the balance of power between the state and the individual.

6. Privacy of location and space

This concerns the individual’s right to move about in public or semi-public spaces without being identified, tracked or monitored. This conception of privacy also includes the right to solitude and a right to privacy in spaces in any chosen environment. Such a conception of privacy has social value.

7. Privacy of association (including group privacy)

This concerns people’s right to associate with whoever they wish, without being monitored. This right has long been recognised as necessary for a meaningful democratic society as it nurtures freedom of speech, including political speech, freedom of worship and other forms of association.


As new technologies emerge to encourage ever more data creation, sharing, storing, and processing, it is vital that the core principles of human right to privacy remain at their core. The European Union is considered a global leader in its quest to protect the rights of data privacy for citizens. Legislation such as the General Data Protection Legislation or GDPR, includes such fundamental rights as "the right to be forgotten" asserting a person's ownership over their own data and right to have it deleted if they so wish.

Our next course in the Digital SkillUp series focuses on the topic of Cyber Security and its role in preserving data privacy in current and emerging technologies. To understand the basics of what cyber security is, and gain tips and tools to implement in your daily life and work, start learning here.

A person at a crossroad
A person at a crossroad

Technology ethics for the 21st century

Technology ethics is the application of ethical thinking to the practical concerns of technology. The reason technology ethics is growing in prominence is that the new and emerging technologies we have outlined in chapters 1-4 give us more power to act, which means that we have to make choices we didn't have to make before. While in the past our actions were involuntarily constrained by our practical limitations, now, with so much technological power, we have to learn how to be voluntarily constrained by our judgment: our ethics.


For example, in the past few decades many new ethical questions have appeared because of innovations in medical, communications, and weapons technologies – three areas that have been advanced by IoT, AIoT, robotics and automation, and extended reality. In the case of communications technologies like social media, humans are still figuring out how to behave when they have access to so many people and so much information; the recent and on-going problems with fake news reflect how quickly things can go wrong on social media when people with malevolent intent have access to the public.

These changes obviously present some powerful risks, and we should ask ourselves whether we think such changes and risks are worthwhile – because we do have choices in the technologies we invent, use and choose to live by. There is a creative human and a human agenda behind every emerging technology. We can indeed govern our emerging technologies with ever-evolving and changing laws, regulations, and other global agreements, but as in the case of the right to privacy as discussed in the previous section, once again we as humans must accept the crucial requirement of responsible, accountable, amenable, answerable, and liable behaviour in all our actions.


The European Commission in its White Paper, ‘On Artificial Intelligence: a European approach to excellence and trust’ (2020) clearly addresses these ethical issues in continuing its commitment towards the development of “ethical guidelines and principles” and states from the outset that the “...EU must act as one and define its own way, based on European values, to promote the development and deployment of AI”. Moreover, the white paper asserts that as AI evolves, it must ensure that it is “human-centric, ethical, sustainable and respects fundamental rights and values” (2020).

Ethical questions

Some fundamental ethical questions that we should be asking of emerging technologies include:

  • What should we be doing with these emerging technologies now that we have developed them?

  • What are we trying to achieve with these emerging technologies?

  • How can these emerging technologies help or harm humans and planet earth?

  • What does a meaningful and mindful – as opposed to an enhanced – human life look like?

As we try to navigate this new space of emerging technologies, we have to evaluate what is right and what is wrong, measuring who benefits from various technologies to prevent any person or groups of people from being exploited by them.

Frameworks for addressing ethical questions

To address these global issues, the “Montreal Declaration for Responsible Development of AI” (2017) sets out ethical principles such as AI should “respect people's privacy, foster diversity of thought and be open to scrutiny”. Moreover, it outlines three main objectives for the responsible development of AI that could indeed be applied to all the emerging technologies we have explored thus far, and as such if we substitute the term AI in these defined objectives of the declaration with the terms IoT, robotics and automation, or extended reality, then the same powerful, ethical messages hold true.

These ethical principles are:

  1. Develop an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI

  2. Guide the digital transition so everyone benefits from this technological revolution

  3. Open a national and international forum for discussion to collectively achieve equitable, inclusive, and ecologically sustainable AI development

We have become so powerful now that we not only have the power to destroy ourselves, we also have the ability to change ourselves.


Take CRISPR for example, a technology that is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Its many potential applications include correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases and improving crops.

With CRISPR and synthetic biology, we can choose to genetically modify people, and by implanting biomedical devices into our bodies and brains we can change how we function and think. Right now, most medical interventions are done for therapy or for a better quality of life, but in the future, we will have to consider human augmentation as well. At some point we may potentially even change the very fabric of human nature and anatomy with emerging technologies.

A growing need for ethical discussion

Technology as we know it today has never been so inescapable in an individual’s life. In reality, most emerging technologies are working invisibly in the background as we go about our daily lives – whether it is checking our mobile devices, doing the shopping, using travel cards, paying remotely for goods, or accessing information or media, a variety of these technologies are synergising to provide us with immediate options, answers and solutions.

As long as there is technological progress and emerging technologies, technology ethics is not going to go away; in fact, questions surrounding technology and ethics will only grow in importance. As we travel along this path, we will choose the kind of future we create. Given our growing technological power, we need to pay more and more attention to ethics if we want to live in a better future and not a worse one. The choice yet again is really ours to make as we are the creative humans that invented these emerging technologies.

Part summary

After completing chapter 5, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the implications of emerging technologies on our everyday lives and the future of work

  • Explain the impacts emerging technologies might have on privacy

  • Understand some of the main ethical questions related to emerging technologies

You reached the end of the course!

Correct answers


Exercises completed