Cloud ethics: How much trust should we put into accounting tech?
Freddie Faure, director of Cooper Faure, raises some interesting questions around the reliance on cloud systems, increasing automation and the impact on what it means to be an accountant.
While some of this is well-trodden ground, Faure’s view is that although there are many benefits to embracing technology, there are ethical questions going unrecognised, and an increasing difficulty in locating where responsibility and obligations lie.
Stating her motivation as “Wanting to ensure that these questions are asked, not to put barriers in the way, but to allow us to think through proper responses as a profession”, she starts by talking about how reliant firms have already become.
Objectivity and integrity
“We are a very pro-technology firm, and always have been, but what I’m becoming very aware of is how we rely on, and naturally trust the software we and our clients use,” said Faure.
“I know that’s always been the way, but this time it’s different because so much data and information is being passed from one app to another, and with many more complex processes involved.
“So as an accountant we can’t be sure that we know exactly what is going on. As this increases in the future it raises the question about quality. If we are processing by pressing a button, do we really understand what is happening?”
For Faure, this is an ethical question. Through embracing technology, and surrendering an understanding of the processes, how can we guarantee that we are providing a quality and accurate service, as well as demonstrate professional scepticism?
“We can form a judgement of what we think an answer might or should be. But when it comes to engaging with more complex questions, if we are going to rely on technology (like AI) to come up with answers for us, what does that mean for our role as both technician and analyst?
“So my first question is: as a tech embracing accountant, how much should we seek to retain an in-depth knowledge of the processes that are increasingly dictating the way services are delivered?”
It also raises the challenge of the safety and safeguarding of the data.
Safety of data
“We are used to being the gatekeeper and the person who can control and manipulate the data. Some of the inputting side we know doesn’t hold much value but even this needs to be done correctly.
“So, when we have a system of interconnected apps and analysis sitting over the top, we are letting in others very easily. We are reliant on the privacy policies and integrity of our suppliers, their security systems and commitment to development,” continued Faure.
Access via APIs is providing great opportunities for the efficient passing of data, but with each link in the chain we are creating a very challenging environment to understanding how the terms and conditions and contracts apply to each other.
“Do we really know the impact of creating these data ‘supply chains’ if things go wrong?” said Faure. “If something bad did happen, could it be actually quite hard to understand who has ultimate responsibility?”
The concern for accountants could therefore simply be a PI one, “If things go wrong it will be me that has to repair the relationship with the client, but might it also create one where I am liable, but I don’t know why or how”.
For Faure this is a complex environment we are creating, and one that seems to take us away from the traditional role of the accountant.
Therefore, the question is will everyone be able to cope?
No one gets left behind
Faure is concerned that in such a world there is a risk that both accountants and their clients could start to fall back if they are unable to stay on top:
“Accountants often have a professional obligation but are not legally responsible for implementing government lead initiatives with clients. RTI, XBRL, and auto enrolment are obvious recent examples where the investigation, purchasing and rolling out technology to taxpayers has often fallen to them.
“MTD is very relevant here of course. We can’t and don’t want to be in a position where we are unable or unwilling to help people. But there is a real cost which is hard to ignore, and some of this is bound up in keeping on top of an increasingly complex technology commitment.”
Will the profession tolerate its peers as well as other businesses being left behind if they cannot cope? Faure further asked: “Is technology now an absolute professional commitment and if so how do you measure and enforce it?”
The paradox, as she pointed out, is that “We also need to think about the accountants of the future, who also risk being left behind”.
“We’ve seen first-hand how the study regime for trainees is increasingly falling behind: the curriculum is not keeping pace with the reality of what is needed. Increasingly, employees don’t have the skills to do the qualitative part of the role and they assume software will do it for them.
“My concern is how do you learn to be the person who has to sit between the quality of data and the computer if you don’t fully understand what is going on?”
In an environment where recruitment and skills are already critical issues, what is the impact if we are not qualifying people to perform professionally? “Are we creating a generation who lack the ability to apply critical thinking?” asked Faure.
This poses a real challenge to the guardians of professional qualifications and standards, who without real engagement could actually be undermining both.
As we look forward if staff need to be doing things differently, it means that our systems have continued to change at pace too.
Faure argued that “More automation brings more technology. In fact, technology just seems to demand more technology, and then you need to have more understanding”.
Added to this, in an increasingly digital tax environment where process itself is mandated Faure questioned: “Will our compliance role in the future be as much about policing systems as driving results?”
Demanding broader answers
Accountancy is not the only profession that is living through substantial changes brought on by technology adoption. Faure remains upbeat about the challenges ahead, but is clear that this is a wider debate: “These are questions that as individual accountants we should not be thinking about alone or between ourselves, and we should demand more input from the institutes and software community too”.