WP 4 – Privacy and ethical impact assessments: towards early identification of ethical issues


  1. To build a set of brief “sense-making” scenarios highlighting possible privacy and ethical impacts arising from new technologies as a way to raise the attention of stakeholders, including industry, policy-makers, academia and others to ethical dilemmas presented by new technologies and as a way to stimulate discussion on ways to optimally address such dilemmas.
  2. Develop a framework for privacy and ethical impact assessments of new technologies and their applications.
  3. Identify the main privacy, data protection and ethical issues and their relevance for EC policy based on a synthesis of the previous work packages.

This work package has three main tasks:

Task 4.1 – Using scenarios to explore possible privacy and ethical problems

All complex technological innovations, from which our societies benefit, are surrounded by scientific uncertainties and several degrees of ignorance. Consequently, we constantly need a future-oriented instrument to early identify societal problems and new knowledge needs. This helps us to provide visions of the future to explore effective strategic policy.

Scenarios are a tool for this purpose, because they encourage the exploration of ‘what might happen’, in terms of the inevitable, the expected, the unpredictable and the unthinkable – from a range of different and complementary perspectives. The aim in building and using scenarios is not to make predictions, but to illustrate the variety of fruitful perspectives – from ‘business as usual’ to ‘wild cards’.

A typical process for developing scenarios includes the following activities and associated tools:



A state-of-the-art review of projects, studies and scenarios (which the partners will be doing in WP1-3).

Literature review, collaborative work, systematic analysis
Internal consortium meeting to brainstorm on the major drivers and to discuss and develop the basics of the scenario scripts and scenario analysis
Brainstorming and other creativity techniques, semi-structured discussion (free discussion on established drivers)
Further development of the scenarios and their analyses
Co-operative writing with iterative loops among partners
Workshop with experts to validate the draft results of the scenarios including their analyses
Validation workshop, expert interviews

The purpose of the scenarios in this project is to provide an important element in the privacy and ethical impact assessment framework proposed in WP4, to help in the early identification of possible new privacy and ethical issues emerging from new technologies and to offer a tool in testing possible decisions to resolve those issues.

This task comprises several main actions:
-- Development of a scenario process and defining key issues
-- Brainstorming
-- Elaboration of scenarios
-- Analysis of the scenarios including a deconstruction methodology
-- Testing and validation of the scenarios by external experts and other stakeholders

Task 4.2 – Development of a framework for privacy and ethical impact assessments

In addition to identifying privacy and ethical issues emerging from new technologies as part of this project, there is need for a framework by means of which privacy and ethical issues can be identified early on. Different frameworks are already in use for other types of risk and these are known, naturally enough, as risk assessments, but there are others such as environmental impact assessment, technology assessment and policy / programme assessments such as those used by the EC and known simply as impact assessment. In recent years, privacy impact assessments have come into use in a few countries. We will consider some of these different mechanisms for identifying, assessing and developing solutions for privacy and ethical problems that may emerge as new technologies are developed.

We envisage a framework based on a privacy impact assessment (PIA) using the PIA handbook published by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as the starting point. ICO defines a PIA as “a process whereby the potential privacy impacts and implications of a project are identified and examined from the perspectives of all stakeholders, and an attempt is made to find ways to minimise or avoid harms”.

More recently, the ISO has produced a standard for PIAs in financial services. In 28 pages, ISO 22307:2008 describes the privacy impact assessment activity in general, defines the “common and required components” of a privacy impact assessment, and provides guidance.

The European Commission specifically refers to and commends the ICO guidelines in its draft RFID Recommendation.

Following a review of PIA frameworks in other countries, the partners propose in this work package to build on and expand the ICO framework to include an ethical impact assessment in view of the fact that new technologies and their applications often give rise to previously unknown ethical problems. An ethical impact assessment, modelled somewhat along the lines of a privacy impact assessment, would be a way of unearthing and assessing such ethical problems and involving stakeholders in the process. The primary task of an ethical impact assessment should be to identify potential ethical issues associated with a new technology.

Others have proposed something similar, i.e., an ethical technology assessment (eTA), which has been proposed as a way to detect potential ethical problems.

In considering the ethical implications of new technologies, one could ask questions such as the following: Who are the agents that are involved in a particular technology development? What are the consequences of particular decisions during the R&D trajectories? What are possible applications and consequences of new technologies? Who is affected and to what extent? What status do stakeholder values and opinions have and how are these integrated in ethical analysis? Unlike traditional ethical cases, the variables for ethical evaluation are vague and unclear, which poses serious problems for ethics when trying to evaluate new technology developments.

Ethical questions regarding applications of future technologies and the ethical dilemmas they raise ought to be subject to reasoned discussions at an early stage, preferably before the technology becomes too entrenched in society. If ethical discussion were a part of the design process from the very beginning, there would be a greater chance for constructive interaction between social values and technological potential.

Task 4.3 – Identifying the main privacy, data protection and ethical issues

The third task of this work package is to identify the main privacy, data protection and ethical issues and their relevance for EC policy and policy-making. The output of this task will be a synthesis of the findings and recommendations from the previous work packages. This synthesis will serve as a kind of executive summary and as the main input paper to the final conference, planned as WP5.


Conference Book of abstracts available
BECOME INVOLVED: The program of the PRESCIENT conference is now available!
SAVE THE DATE: The PRESCIENT project will hold an international conference on "Privacy and Emerging Sciences and Technologies" on 27 & 28 November 2012 at Fraunhofer Forum in Berlin
30-11-2011: Book Launch: Towards Responsible Research and Innovation in the ICT and Security Technologies Fields.
Download Report
01-06-2011: Workshop on "Privacy issues arising from next generation whole genome sequencing" (01 June 2011) in Brussels
In co-operation with the STOA Project "Making Perfect Life"