Building trust in the digital era: achieving Scotland's aspirations as an ethical digital nation

An Expert group supported by public and stakeholder insights has reviewed evidence and provided recommendations which will support and inform future policy. The report has a focus on building trust with the people of Scotland through engaging them in digital decisions that affect their lives.


The purpose of this report is to advance the vision of an Ethical Digital Nation as set out in Scotland’s Digital Strategy (Digital Directorate, 2021). Compiled by the National Expert Group on Digital Ethics, it aims to develop strategic and actionable recommendations for an Ethical Digital Scotland, informed by the best available evidence, expert knowledge and insights from multiple publics and stakeholders.

Becoming an Ethical Digital Nation is a key ambition for the Scottish Government. The Digital Strategy states that:

“Our vision is for a society where people can trust public services and businesses to respect privacy and be open and honest in the way data is being used… A place where children and vulnerable people are protected from harm. Where digital technologies adopt the principles of privacy, resilience and harm reduction by design and are inclusive, fair and useful.”

Digital Directorate, 2021

This report is the first step in setting out a vision of an Ethical Digital Nation as outlined in the Digital Strategy.

The outcomes of this report will help to realise the additional actions listed in the Strategy, including:

  • Build public trust in the use of data
  • Make more of our data available openly
  • Increase community engagement and participation
  • Engage with confidence on the international stage
  • Realise digital rights
  • Use Scotland’s data capabilities to address climate change targets (Digital Directorate, 2021).

Where there is clear opportunity for citizens and society to benefit from increased use of digital in the way we live our lives, we need to be taking the necessary steps to ensure that ethics sits at the front and centre of our decision-making, across government, private sector, civil society and as citizens. Here we draw out the views expressed by the public and the expert group around some of the ethical challenges present in the digital domain.

This report makes strategic and actionable recommendations, taking into account existing activity and identifying where gaps exist or where focus should increase. These recommendations all relate to the levers available to Scotland at multiple institutional levels. The graphic below shows a summary of these levers, with the responsible owners of the recommendations noted in the middle of the diagram.

Layered cycle diagram depicting the responsible owners at the core of the report recommendations contained by the five main levers of action available to Scotland at multiple levels.

The recommendations in this report are specific to the ethical tensions explored by the expert group and the people’s panel but should be considered within the context of a range of Scottish Government strategies and policies that currently support the realisation of an ethical digital nation. The most significant of these are the overarching Digital Strategy - A Changing Nation: How Scotland Will Thrive in a Digital World. The AI Strategy; which sets out a vision for AI in Scotland and the principles and actions that will underpin the development of a strong and ethical AI eco-system in addition to the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, the COVID Recovery Strategy and supporting policies on improving digital skills and a Just Transition.

A summary of the recommendations can be found at the end of this report. This summary aims to synthesise a set of recommendations based on the content of each chapter of the report and reflects the views of the Public Panel, such that each of the responsible owners can strategise on how they can set about acting on the recommendations.

This report offers a number of frameworks and concepts that can be used to help with the analysis and potential options in trying to reach an Ethical Digital Scotland. It demonstrates examples of good and bad practice throughout a number of thematic chapters.

Each section flags important elements for the individual, community, organisation and government, which focus on setting out ethical approaches to issues such as the impact of digital technologies on privacy and democracy. There will be changes and safeguards needed to maximise benefits while minimising risks and harms.

Why is this needed?

Scotland’s people deserve to benefit from the opportunities the digital era can bring, such as more efficient and convenient public services, new forms of employment and opportunities to build cutting-edge businesses that grow the economy and contribute to wellbeing and environmental sustainability. The Scottish government has invested heavily developing eGovernment services as well as major digital infrastructure projects, innovation centres, and programmes aimed at encouraging start-ups and generating tax revenue. Significant successes have been seen in digital and data-driven sectors such as cybersecurity, gaming, robotics, biomedical research, and fintech, promising to create employment and support sustainability.

Despite these potential benefits, these developments also present ethical and societal challenges and dilemmas. For one thing, access to digital, and the skills to use it, are unevenly distributed and may potentially exacerbate inequalities, particularly as services have moved to ‘digital first’. Current digital services have facilitated or been deployed in ways that has intensified or created new channels for a whole range of harms: fraud, hate crime, privacy invasion, information crimes, gambling addiction, suicide, terrorism, and structural forms of discrimination. The increasing ability to capture data from the activities of individuals and organisations, often as the basis for providing legitimate services, continues to challenge our ability to ensure fairness, privacy and rights.

The Public Panel, giving insight from Scottish citizens, reveals strong expectation for protection by government, which is also complex to deliver.

It is recognised that many of the direct legal and regulatory levers that govern digital are reserved to Westminster and managed through a range of different departments from Energy to Department of Culture Media and Sport with regulatory powers distributed between a number of bodies. Therefore engaging with appropriate UK Government Departments and ancillary bodies is key to increasing Scotland’s influence and voice in delivering on the vision and ambition for an Ethical Digital Scotland.

Responsibility for Economic development and Education policy, in addition to oversight of a broad range of public bodies from academia to local government, is devolved to the Scottish Government and deliver levers to direct and influence behaviours across all sectors.

The recommendations from this report will provide a starting point for individuals, communities, organisations, and government to build an Ethical Digital Scotland.

What is Digital Ethics?

This simplified definition of digital ethics was developed specifically for the context of this report as part of the Scottish Government digital ethics discovery process.

Digital ethics is ethics in the digital world, where ethics is commonly defined as a system of moral principles, affecting how decisions are made that impact individuals, society and the environment. Ethics provides us with a moral map to help guide us through challenging issues. Ethics supports thinking beyond self-interest.

Digital ethics concerns behaviour, activities and decisions related to the digital world. The digital environment includes collecting, storing, publishing, communicating, using and sharing information. Digital ethics addresses morality around decision making in the digital space.

Digital ethics covers interactions across:

  • individuals
  • organisations (both public and private)
  • Communities
  • the Environment and
  • digital things (such as mobile phones, the Internet, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things or robots).

Digital ethics may be framed as an area of study or practice in philosophy, technology design, law, social science, data protection, corporate governance, cybersecurity, democracy and social activism and more. Likewise, different sectors also have their own ways of looking at ethics, as do different governments. For example, the framework for ‘responsible innovation’[2] favoured by the European Commission emphasises the need for anticipatory ethics – thinking ahead to ensure that what is created today will not have unintended consequences in the future – which has been used to guide its research investments in areas like industrial automation. Similarly, ‘computer ethics’, ‘engineering ethics’ and ‘robot ethics’ consider issues such as ethical coding alongside broader issues such as risk and gender bias. ‘Data ethics’ encompasses concerns around information and its users, including privacy, control and rights.

The cluster of activity around ‘AI ethics’ includes additional considerations such as algorithmic transparency and automated injustice. Despite their nuances and priorities, recent reviews suggest that their core concepts have much in common.

Scope of Digital Ethics

The scope of Digital Ethics within this report examines issues around culture, trust and technology which:

  • Covers a range of existing and emerging digital and data innovations.
  • Considers how these impact people and society in different contexts e.g. health, work, education, finance, leisure, transport etc.
  • Analyses risks to privacy, rights, equality, wellbeing, and the environment and how these can be overcome.
  • Examines how digital may be used to support ethical and trustworthy practices through design, inclusion and accountability.
  • Takes account of and seeks to inform relevant legislation, regulations and policies
  • Aims to encourage a fair and responsible digital society



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