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Whistleblower risk rises with AI policy adoption

Big tech companies aren't the only ones who should worry about repercussions from whistleblowers. CIOs from all industries should be implementing responsible tech policies.

Forrester Research is warning CIOs of the risk of tech whistleblowers as companies increasingly adopt tools, such as artificial intelligence, that have low employee trust, prompting the need for responsible tech policies.

Tech industry employees are increasingly opposing the use of applications and technologies that raise ethical concerns, according to a Forrester Research 2023 predictions report based on customer survey data. Indeed, in 2021, Forrester found that a fifth of technology leaders using or interested in adopting AI in particular cited employees' lack of employees' lack of trust as a significant barrier to using AI-enabled technologies.

AI has come under fire in recent years, internally for employees and externally for customers. While employees have started to take issue with tools that promote employee monitoring, there is also a history of problems with companies' algorithmic decision-making tools when it comes to loans, mortgages, and even job applications.

Ethical issues with tech companies' AI use were further brought to light in 2022 when a former product manager at Facebook, Frances Haugen, revealed that the company's content-ranking algorithms consistently heightened violent and extreme content. Haugen also said Meta, formerly Facebook, shielded its research on the damage the content-ranking algorithms caused, particularly to teens on Meta-owned Instagram.

While whistleblowers -- individuals who report what they believe to be fraudulent and dangerous activity to public authorities or media outlets -- are stepping up to hold tech companies accountable for how technology is used, they're also holding companies accountable for their business practices. Twitter whistleblower Peiter "Mudge" Zatko, the company's former security chief, testified before the Senate in September that Twitter lacked basic security measures for employee data access to the platform.

Forrester Research's 2023 predictions report expects more whistleblowers to come forward in 2023 across the tech industry.

"When employees are being asked to self-organize and self-trust around these AI-driven tools in support of an organization's productivity and profits, they will step up to hold executive leadership and tech power to account," said Linda Ivy-Rosser, a research director at Forrester Research and a report author.

Impact of tech whistleblowers

The fallout from whistleblowers is twofold: profits and reputation.

Frances Haugen's revelation cost Meta $6 billion in market value, said Suneet Muru, an analyst at data analytics firm GlobalData.

"The impact of a whistleblower is difficult to measure but can be linked to the size of the leak itself," Muru said. "The volume of information brought to light by Frances Haugen dwarfed previous leaks but also brought these lower-profile cases to the attention of mainstream media."

In past decades, tech industry whistleblowers have alerted the broader world to fraud. But increasingly now, that is shifting to revealing unethical tech practices.
Alan Pelz-SharpeFounder, Deep Analysis

According to Forrester Research's 2023 report, 39% of customers surveyed reported they would stop doing business with companies following a damaging headline.

Whistleblowers can impact not just a company's profitability but future employees and partners, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder of market analyst firm Deep Analysis.

Whistleblowers have an impact “by informing others of the true nature of the business," he said.

He added that the tech sector is "rife with issues" that many employees are uncomfortable with, and he expects to see more whistleblowers.

"In past decades, tech industry whistleblowers have alerted the broader world to fraud. But increasingly now, that is shifting to revealing unethical tech practices," he said. "The rise of AI will undoubtedly produce more whistleblowers."

CIOs need a responsible tech policy

Ivy-Rosser said employees are changing and feeling more empowered to speak out when issues arise.

She said employees "feel that they don't have to shed their humanity" simply because they work for a company. Instead, they expect morality and ethics to be embedded in company values and pillars.

That desire for morality on behalf of a company should prompt CIOs to consider an ethical technology strategy carefully, she said.

Implementing an ethical and responsible technology strategy means CIOs and other C-suite leaders will need to work together to minimize legal and business risks, Ivy-Rosser said.

"The strategy planning is going to have to broaden our view and our scope of what responsible and ethical technology means," she said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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