This article was first published in the October 2017 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

A large utility company decides to expand into financial services. Its marketing department emails the customer database to introduce a credit card that offers loyalty discounts. It has not sought prior permission for sending this communication. The launch comes months before the introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, scheduled for May 2018, which prohibits companies from using data for a purpose other than that for which it was collected. 

Does this have ethical implications for qualified accountants in EU companies, including the CFO, internal auditors and others in finance? According to a new study, there could very well be. Earlier this year, ACCA and Chartered Accountants Australia & New Zealand (CA ANZ) surveyed more than 10,000 professional accountants and students and 510 C-suite executives in 158 nations, and held discussions with CFOs and audit partners in nine countries. 

For me, the most fascinating ideas in Ethics and trust in a digital age revolve around the main theme. The respondents were asked whether they believed that strong ethical principles and behaviour will become more important in the digital age. Eight out of 10 said yes – with more accountants expressing strong agreement (60%) compared with the executives (44%).

In the roundtable discussions, the participants were asked to consider digital issues, including cybersecurity, platform-based business models, big data and analytics, and automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning. For example, is it ethical to leverage a database compiled for customer relationship management for a marketing campaign?

It’s a question that did not arise in the pre-digital age. Neither did the ethics of putting sensitive financial and other data in a distributed ledger, using machine-learning algorithms to judge whether a transaction is fraudulent, and deploying robotic process automation in business processes that could result in people losing their jobs.

The study’s conclusion is that the five principles of the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants – integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour – remain applicable in the digital age. 

The study urges positive action, too. As custodian of sensitive data, the accountant should be aware of the risks of ransomware attacks, know how the organisation is protecting itself from it – and take steps to support and update those defences. 

To my mind, this is where the real value of the study lies. Too often, we tend to see ethics as the avoidance of doing something bad. In truth, being ethical also means taking positive action, including reporting unethical behaviour. In the fast-moving digital age, action is called for now more than ever. 

Cesar Bacani is editor-in-chief of CFO Innovation