Human Rights Engineering – Beyond Privacy: Growing Digital Ethics in Practice

For this episode, I’m joined by Katie Shay, the head of Business & Human Rights at Cisco. Katie compared the growing strategic focus on human rights in business operations to the prior development of Privacy Engineering as a discipline: she believes the trajectory from being an important but loosely organized set of principles to a recognized business function is beginning to coalesce. We’re starting to see a move towards a recognizable discipline of Human Rights Engineering. We can observe this broader trend not only through Katie’s direct work at Cisco but also examples of companies like Salesforce taking a proactive stance by creating an Ethical & Humane Use of Technology Office, as well as firms long beleaguered by criticisms of their human rights records like Facebook and Twitter hiring human rights directors to critically examine their impact.

Human Rights Engineering – Beyond Privacy: Growing Digital Ethics in Practice

Katie pointed to two essential frameworks as fundamental background reading for anyone looking to build human rights operational governance processes: the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Katie focused on several principles for developing an effective human rights governance process: understanding bias, creating a diverse team, and noting where there are gaps in order to figure out how to bring those perspectives to the table, interdisciplinarity in approaching an issue, and strong cross-functional relationships. By using these principles, Katie finds that a human rights-based approach not only provides an effective framework for risk mitigation but also by its very nature gives more insightful outcomes to enhancing all kinds of business decisions.

As with so many of our guests, Katie focused not only on the risk mitigation aspects of ethics but also the opportunity for identifying market gaps and driving strategic success: she spoke about one initiative in Cisco’s internal incubator where a technology team came to Katie’s team for human rights guidance. The Business & Human Rights Team were not only to find examples of risk areas and talk the incubator team through some strategies for mitigating those risks, but they were also able to identify several new ways the technology could be used for enhancing human rights, thus adding to the incubator team’s business case for taking this novel project from an experiment to a technology worth backing in production. While the technology was still too early-stage to discuss in detail, the approach of using human rights to guide better business outcomes should be an inspiration to any team seeking to accelerate their decision-making capabilities.

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