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Ethical Issues in the Online World

Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.

The following postings have been filtered by tag privacy. clear filter
  •  Death and Facebook

    Wednesday, Jul. 29, 2015

    A number of recent articles have noted Facebook’s introduction of a feature that allows users to designate “legacy contacts” for their accounts. In an extensive examination titled “Where Does Your Facebook Account Go When You Die?,” writer Simon Davis explains that, until recently, when Facebook was notified that one of its users had died, the company would “memorialize” that person’s account (in part in order to keep the account from being hacked). What “memorialization” implies has changed over time. Currently, according to Davis, memorialized accounts retain the privacy and audience settings last set by the user, while the contact information and ability to post status updates are stripped out. Since February, however, users can also designate a “legacy contact” person who “can perform certain functions on a memorialized account.” As Davis puts it, “Now, a trusted third party can approve a new friend request by the distraught father or get the mother’s input on a different profile image.”

    Would you give another person the power to add new “friends” to your account or change the profile image, after your death? Which begs the question, what is a Facebook account?

    In his excellent article, Davis cites Vanessa Callison-Burch, the Facebook product manager who is primarily responsible for the newly-added legacy account feature. Explaining some of the thinking behind it, she argues that a Facebook account “is a really important part of people’s identity and is a community space. Your Facebook account is incredibly personalized. It’s a community place for people to assemble and celebrate your life.” She adds that “there are certain things that that community of people really need to be supported in that we at Facebook can’t make the judgment call on.”

    While I commend Facebook for its (new-found?) modesty in feature design, and its recognition that the user’s wishes matter deeply, I find myself wondering about that description of a Facebook account as “a community space.” Is it? I’ve written elsewhere that posting on Facebook “echoes, for some of us, the act of writing in a journal.” A diary is clearly not a “community space.” On Facebook, however, commenters on one user’s posts get to comment on other commenters’ comments, and entire conversations develop among a user’s “friends.” Sometimes friends of friends “friend” each other.  So, yes, a community is involved. But no, the community’s “members” don’t get to decide what your profile picture should be, or whether or not you should “friend” your dad. Who should?

    In The Guardian, Stuart Heritage explores that question in a much lighter take on the subject of “legacy contacts,” titled “To my brother I leave my Facebook account ... and any chance of dignity in death.” As he makes clear, “nominating a legacy contact is harder than it looks.”

    Rather than simply putting that responsibility on a trusted person, Simon Davis suggests that Facebook should give users the opportunity to create an advance directive with specific instructions about their profile: “who should be able to see it, who should be able to send friend requests, and even what kind of profile picture or banner image the person would want displayed after death.” That alternative would respect the user’s autonomy even more than the current “legacy contact” does.

    But there is another option that perhaps respects that autonomy the most: Facebook currently also allows a user to check a box specifying that his or her account be simply deleted after his or her death. Heritage writes that “this is a hard button to click. It means erasing yourself.” Does it? Maybe it just signals a different perspective on Facebook. Maybe, for some, a Facebook account is neither an autobiography nor a guest book. Maybe the users who choose that delete option are not meanly destroying a “community space,” but ending a conversation.

    Photo by Lori Semprevio, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  Privacy and Diversity

    Friday, Jun. 12, 2015
     
    Teams that work on privacy-protective features for our online lives are much more likely to be effective if those teams are diverse, in as many ways as possible.
     
    Here is what led me to this (maybe glaringly obvious) insight:
     
    First, an event that I attended at Facebook’s headquarters, called “Privacy@Scale,” which brought together academics, privacy practitioners (from both the legal and the tech sides), regulators, and product managers. (We had some great conversations.)
     
    Second, a study that was recently published with much fanfare (and quite a bit of tech media coverage) by the International Association of Privacy Professionals, showing that careers in privacy are much more likely than others to provide gender pay parity—and including the observation that there are more women than men in the ranks of Chief Privacy Officers.
     
    Third, a story from a law student who had interned on the privacy team of a large Silicon Valley company, who mentioned sitting in a meeting and thinking to herself that something being proposed as a feature would never have been accepted in the culture that she came from—would in fact have been somewhat taboo, and might have upset people if it were broadly implemented, rather than offered as an opt-in—and realizing that none of the other members of the team understood this.
     
    And fourth, a question that several commenters asked earlier this year when Facebook experienced its “It’s Been a Great Year” PR disaster (after a developer wrote about the experience of seeing his daughter’s face auto-inserted by Facebook algorithms under a banner reading “It’s Been a Great Year!” when in fact his daughter had died that year): Had there been any older folks on the team that released that feature? If not, would the perspective of some older team members have tempered the roll-out, provided a word of caution?
     
    Much has been said, for a long time, about how it’s hard to “get privacy right” because privacy is all about nuance and gray areas, and conceptions of privacy vary so much among individuals, cultures, contexts, etc.  Given that, it makes sense that diverse teams working on privacy-enhancing features would be better able to anticipate and address problems. Not all problems, of course—diversity would not be a magic solution. It would, however, help.
     
    Various studies have recently shown that diversity on research teams leads to better science, that cultural diversity on global virtual teams has a positive effect on decision-making, that meaningful gender diversity in the workplace improves companies’ bottom line, and that “teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it takes longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve good cooperation.”
     
    In Silicon Valley, the talk about team building tends to be about “culture fit” (or, more sharply critical, about “broculture”). As it turns out, though, the right “culture fit” for a privacy team should probably include diversity (of background, gender, age, skills, and even personality), combined with an understanding that one’s own perspectives are not universal; the ability to listen; and curiosity about and respect for difference. 
     
    Photo by Sean MacEntee, used without modification under a Creative Commons liccense.
     
  •  Which Students? Which Rights? Which Privacy?

    Friday, May. 29, 2015

     

    Last week, researcher danah boyd, who has written extensively about young people’s attitudes toward privacy (and debunked many pervasive “gut feelings” about those attitudes and related behaviors), wrote a piece about the several bills now working their way through Congress that aim to protect “student privacy.” boyd is not impressed. While she agrees that reform of current educational privacy laws is much needed, she writes, "Of course, even though this is all about *students*, they don’t actually have a lot of power in any of these bills. It’s all a question of who can speak on their behalf and who is supposed to protect them from the evils of the world. And what kind of punishment for breaches is most appropriate."
     
    boyd highlights four different “threat models” and argues that the proposed bills do nothing to address two of those: the “Consumer Finance Threat Model,” in which student data would “fuel the student debt ecosystem,” and the “Criminal Justice Threat Model,” in which such data would help build “new policing architectures.”
     
    As boyd puts it, “the risks that we’re concerned about are shaped by the fears of privileged parents.”
     
    In a related post called “Students: The one group missing from student data privacy laws and bills,” journalist Larry Magid adds that the proposed bills “are all about parental rights but only empower students once they turn 18.” Referencing boyd’s research, he broadens the conversation to argue that “[i]t’s about time we start to respect privacy, free speech rights and intellectual property rights of children.”
     
    While free speech and property rights are important, the protection of privacy in particular is essential for the full development of the self. The fact that children and young people need some degree of privacy not just from government or marketers but from their own well-intentioned family members has been particularly obscured by pervasive tropes like “young people today don’t care about privacy.”
     
    Of course, one way to combat those false tropes is to talk to young people directly. Just ask them: are there some things they keep to themselves, or share only with a few close friends or family members? And no, the fact that some of them post lots of things on social media that their elders might not does not mean that they “don’t care about privacy.” It just means that privacy boundaries vary—from generation to generation, from culture to culture, from context to context, from individual to individual.
     
    The best recent retort to statements about young people and privacy comes from security expert Bruce Schneier, who answered a question from an interviewer with some questions of his own: "Who are all these kids who are growing up without the concept of digital privacy? Is there even one? … All people care deeply about privacy—analog, digital, everything—and kids are especially sensitive about privacy from their parents, teachers, and friends. … Privacy is a vital aspect of human dignity, and we all value it."
     
    Given that, boyd’s critique of current efforts aimed at protecting student privacy is a call to action: Policy makers (and, really, all of us) need to better understand the true threats, and to better protect those who are most vulnerable in a “hypersurveilled world.”

     

    Photo by Theen Moy, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  BroncoHack 2015 (Guest Post)

    Friday, May. 8, 2015

    Last weekend, Santa Clara University hosted BroncoHack 2015—a hackathon organized by the OMIS Student Network, with the goal of creating “a project that is innovative in the arenas of business and technology” while also reflecting the theme of “social justice.” The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics was proud to be one of the co-sponsors of the event.

    The winning project was “PrivaSee”—a suite of applications that helps prevent the leakage of sensitive and personally identifiable student information from schools’ networks. In the words of its creators, “PrivaSee offers a web dashboard that allows schools to monitor their network activity, as well as a mobile application that allows parents to stay updated about their kids’ digital privacy. A network application that sits behind the router of a school's network continuously monitors the network packets, classifies threat levels, and notifies the school administration (web) and parents (mobile) if it discovers student data being leaked out of the network, or if there are any unauthorized apps or services being used in the classrooms that could potentially syphon private data. For schools, it offers features like single dashboard monitoring of all kids and apps. For parents, it provides the power of on-the-move monitoring of all their kids’ privacy and the ability to chat with school administration in the event of any issues. Planned extensions like 'privacy bots' will crawl the Internet to detect leaked data of students who might have found ways to bypass a school's secure networks. The creators of PrivaSee believe that cybersecurity issues in connected learning environments are a major threat to kids' safety, and they strive to create a safer ecosystem.”

    From the winning team:

    "Hackathons are always fun and engaging. Personally, I put this one at the top of my list. I feel lucky to have been part of this energetic, multi-talented team, and I will never forget the fun we had. Our preparations started a week ago, brainstorming various ideas. We kick-started the event with analysis of our final idea and the impact it can create, rather than worrying about any technical challenges that might hit us. We divided our work, planned our approach, and enjoyed every moment while shaping our idea to a product. Looking back, I am proud to attribute our success to my highly motivated and fearless team with an unending thirst to bring a vision to reality. We are looking forward to testing our idea in real life and helping to create a safer community." - Venkata Sai Kishore Modalavalasa, Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Student, Santa Clara University

    "My very first hackathon, and an amazing experience indeed! The intellectually charged atmosphere, the intense coding, and the serious competition kept us on our toes throughout the 24 hours. Kudos to ‘Cap'n Sai,’ who guided us and helped take the product to near perfection. Kudos to the rest of my teammates, who coded diligently through the night. And finally, thank you to the organizers and sponsors of BroncoHack 2015, for having provided us with a platform to turn an idea into a functional security solution that can help us make a difference." - Ashish Nair, Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Student, Santa Clara University

    "Bronco-hack was the first hackathon I ever attended, and it turned to be an amazing experience. After pondering over many ideas, we finally decided to stick with our app: 'PrivaSee'. The idea was to come up with a way to protect kids from sending sensitive digital information that can potentially be compromised over the school’s network. Our objective was to build a basic working model (minimum viable product) of the app. It was a challenge to me because I was not experienced in the particular technical skill-set that was required to build my part of the app. This experience has most definitely strengthened my ability to perform and learn in high pressure situations. I would definitely like to thank the organizers for supporting us throughout the event. They provided us with whatever our team needed and were very friendly about it. I plan to focus on resolving more complicated issues that still plague our society and carry forward and use what I learnt from this event." - Manish Kaushik, Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Student, Santa Clara University

    "Bronco Hack 2015 was my first Hackathon experience. I picked up working with Android App development. Something that I found challenging and fun to do was working with parse cloud and Android Interaction. I am really happy that I was able to learn and complete the hackathon. I also find that I'm learning how to work and communicate effectively in teams and within time bounds. Everyone in the team comes in with different skill levels and you really have to adapt quickly in order to be productive as a team and make your idea successful within 24hrs." - Prajakta Patil, Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Student, Santa Clara University

    "I am extremely glad I had this opportunity to participate in Bronco Hack 2015. It was my first ever hackathon, and an eye-opening event for me. It is simply amazing how groups of individuals can come up with such unique and extremely effective solutions for current issues in a matter of just 24 hours. This event helped me realize that I am capable of much more than I expected. It was great working with the team we had, and special thanks to Captain Sai for leading the team to victory. " - Tanmay Kuruvilla, Computer Science & Engineering Graduate Student, Santa Clara University

    Congratulations to all of the BroncoHack participants—and yes, BroncoHack will return next Spring!

  •  A New Ethics Case Study

    Friday, Apr. 24, 2015
    A Google receptionist works at the front desk in the company's office in this Oct. 2, 2006, file photo. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

    In October 2014, Google inaugurated a Transparency Report detailing its implementation of the European court decision generally (though mistakenly) described as being about “the right to be forgotten.” To date, according to the report, Google has received more than 244,000 requests for removals of URLs from certain searches involvijng names of EU residents. Aside from such numbers, the Transparency Report includes examples of requests received--noting, in each case, whether or not Google complied with the request.

    The “right to be forgotten” decision and its implementation have raised a number of ethical issues. Given that, we thought it would be useful to draw up an ethics case study that would flesh out those issues; we published that yesterday: see “Removing a Search Result: An Ethics Case Study.”

    What would you decide, if you were part of the decision-making team tasked with evaluating the request described in the case study?

     

  •  Grant from Intel's Privacy Curriculum Initiative Will Fund New SCU Course

    Friday, Mar. 27, 2015

    Exciting news! A new course now being developed at Santa Clara University, funded by a $25,000 grant from Intel Corporation's Privacy Curriculum Initiative, will bring together engineering, business, and law students to address topics such as privacy by design, effective and accurate privacy policies, best‐practice cybersecurity procedures, and more. Ethics will be an important part of the discussion, and the curriculum will be developed by the High Tech Law Institute in conjunction with Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering, the Leavey School of Business, and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

    More details here!

     

  •  Trust, Self-Criticism, and Open Debate

    Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2015
    President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Stanford, Calif., Friday, Feb. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

    Last November, the director of the NSA came to Silicon Valley and spoke about the need for increased collaboration among governmental agencies and private companies in the battle for cybersecurity.  Last month, President Obama came to Silicon Valley as well, and signed an executive order aimed at promoting information sharing about cyberthreats.  In his remarks ahead of that signing, he noted that the government “has its own significant capabilities in the cyber world” and added that when it comes to safeguards against governmental intrusions on privacy, “the technology so often outstrips whatever rules and structures and standards have been put in place, which means the government has to be constantly self-critical and we have to be able to have an open debate about it.”

    Five days later, on February 19, The Intercept reported that back in 2010 “American and British spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe….” A few days after that, on February 23, at a cybersecurity conference, the director of the NSA was confronted by the chief information security officer of Yahoo in an exchange which, according to the managing editor of the Just Security blog, “illustrated the chasm between some leading technology companies and the intelligence community.”

    Then, on March 10th, The Intercept reported that in 2012 security researchers working with the CIA “claimed they had created a modified version of Apple’s proprietary software development tool, Xcode, which could sneak surveillance backdoors into any apps or programs created using the tool. Xcode, which is distributed by Apple to hundreds of thousands of developers, is used to create apps that are sold through Apple’s App Store.” Xcode’s product manager reacted on Twitter: “So. F-----g. Angry.”

    Needless to say, it hasn’t been a good month for the push toward increased cooperation. However, to put those recent reactions in a bit more historical context, in October 2013, it was Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, who reacted to reports that Google’s data links had been hacked by the NSA: "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fibre networks,” he said, “and it underscores the need for urgent reform." In May 2014, following reports that some Cisco products had been altered by the NSA, Mark Chandler, Cisco’s general counsel, wrote that the “failure to have rules [that restrict what the intelligence agencies may do] does not enhance national security ….”

    If the goal is increased collaboration between the public and private sector on issues related to cybersecurity, many commentators have observed that the issue most hampering that is a lack of trust. Things are not likely to get better as long as the anger and lack of trust are left unaddressed.  If President Obama is right in noting that, in a world in which technology routinely outstrips rules and standards, the government must be “constantly self-critical,” then high-level visits to Silicon Valley should include that element, much more openly than they have until now.

     

  •  Luciano Floridi’s Talk at Santa Clara University

    Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2015

     

     
    In the polarized debate about the so-called “right to be forgotten” prompted by an important decision issued by the European Court of Justice last year, Luciano Floridi has played a key role. Floridi, who is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford and Director of Research of the Oxford Internet Institute, accepted Google’s invitation to join its advisory council on that topic. While the council was making its way around seven European capitals pursuing both expert and public input, Professor Floridi (the only ethicist in the group) wrote several articles about his evolving understanding of the issues involved—including “Google's privacy ethics tour of Europe: a complex balancing act”; “Google ethics tour: should readers be told a link has been removed?”; “The right to be forgotten – the road ahead”; and “Right to be forgotten poses more questions than answers.”
     
    Last month, after the advisory council released its much-anticipated report, Professor Floridi spoke at Santa Clara University (his lecture was part of our ongoing “IT, Ethics, and Law” lecture series). In his talk, titled “Recording, Recalling, Retrieving, Remembering: Memory in the Information Age,” Floridi embedded his analysis of the European court decision into a broader exploration of the nature of memory itself; the role of memory in the European philosophical tradition; and the relationship among memory, identity, forgiveness, and closure. As Floridi explained, the misnamed “right to be forgotten” is really about closure, which is in turn not about forgetting but about “rightly managing your past memory.”
     
    Here is the video of that talk. We hope that it will add much-needed context to the more nuanced conversation that is now developing around the balancing of the rights, needs, and responsibilities of all of the stakeholders involved in this debate, as Google continues to process the hundreds of thousands of requests for de-linking submitted so far in the E.U.
     
    If you would like to be added to our “IT, Ethics, and Law” mailing list in order to be notified of future events in the lecture series, please email ethics@scu.edu.

     

  •  On Remembering, Forgetting, and Delisting

    Friday, Feb. 20, 2015
     
    Over the last two weeks, Julia Powles, who is a law and technology researcher at the University of Cambridge, has published two interesting pieces on privacy, free speech, and the “right to be forgotten”: “Swamplands of the Internet: Speech and Privacy,” and “How Google Determined Our Right to Be Forgotten” (the latter co-authored by Enrique Chaparro). They are both very much worth reading, especially for folks whose work impacts the privacy rights (or preferences, if you prefer) of people around the world.
     
    Today, a piece that I wrote, which also touches on the “right to be forgotten,” was published in Re/code. It’s titled “The Right to Be Forgotten, the Privilege to Be Remembered.” I hope you’ll read that, too!
     
    And earlier in February, Google’s Advisory Council issued its much-anticipated report on the issue, which seeks to clarify the outlines of the debate surrounding it and offers suggestions for the implementation of “delisting.”
     
    One of the authors of that report, Professor Luciano Floridi, will be speaking at Santa Clara University on Wednesday, 2/25, as part of our “IT, Ethics and Law” lecture series.  Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford and the Director of Research of the Oxford Internet Institute. His talk is titled “Recording, Recalling, Retrieving, Remembering: Memory in the Information Age.” The event is free and open to the public; if you live in the area and are interested in memory, free speech, and privacy online, we hope you will join us and RSVP!
     
    [And if you would like to be added to our mailing list for the lecture series—which has recently hosted panel presentations on ethical hacking, the ethics of online price discrimination, and privacy by design and software engineering ethics—please email ethics@scu.edu.] 
     
    Photo by Minchioletta, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.
  •  “Practically as an accident”: on “social facts” and the common good

    Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

     

    In the Los Angeles Review of Books, philosopher Evan Selinger takes issue with many of the conclusions (and built-in assumptions) compiled in Dataclysm—a new book by Christian Rudder, who co-founded the dating site OKCupid and now heads the site’s data analytics team. While Selinger’s whole essay is really interesting, I was particularly struck by his comments on big data and privacy. 

    “My biggest issue with Dataclysm,” Selinger writes,
     
    lies with Rudder’s treatment of surveillance. Early on in the book he writes: ‘If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: the human story.’ This claim about pursuing a third path isn’t true. Dataclysm itself is a work of social surveillance.
     
    It’s tempting to think that different types of surveillance can be distinguished from one another in neat and clear ways. If this were the case, we could say that government surveillance only occurs when organizations like the National Security Agency do their job; corporate surveillance is only conducted by companies like Facebook who want to know what we’re doing so that they effectively monetize our data and devise strategies to make us more deeply engaged with their platform; and social surveillance only takes place in peer-to-peer situations, like parents monitoring their children’s phones, romantic partners scrutinizing each other’s social media feeds….
     
    But in reality, surveillance is defined by fluid categories.
     
    While each category of surveillance might include both ethical and unethical practices, the point is that the boundaries separating the categories are porous, and the harms associated with surveillance might seep across all of them.
     
    Increasingly, when corporations like OKCupid or Facebook analyze their users’ data and communications in order to uncover “social facts,” they claim to be acting in the interest of the common good, rather than pursuing self-serving goals. They claim to give us clear windows into our society. The subtitle of Rudder’s book, for example, is “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).” As Selinger notes,
     
    Rudder portrays the volume of information… as a gift that can reveal the truth of who we really are. … [W]hen people don’t realize they’re lab rats in Rudder’s social experiments, they reveal habits—‘universals,’ he even alleges…  ‘Practically as an accident,’ Rudder claims, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we’re changing.’
     
    Of course, Rudder should contain his claims to the “we” who use OKCupid (a 2013 study by the Pew Research Trust found that 10% of Americans report having used an online dating service). Facebook has a stronger claim to having a user base that reflects all of “us.”  But there are other entities that sit on even vaster data troves than Facebook’s, even more representative of U.S. society overall. What if a governmental organization were to decide to pursue the same selfless goals, after carefully ensuring that the data involved would be carefully anonymized and presented only in the aggregate (akin to what Rudder claims to have done)?
     
    In the interest of better “social facts,” of greater insight into our collective mindsets and behaviors, should we encourage (or indeed demand from) the NSA to publish “Who Americans Are (Whey They Think No One’s Watching)”? To be followed, perhaps, by a series of “Who [Insert Various Other Nationalities] Are (When They Think No One’s Watching)”? Think of all the social insights and common good that would come from that!
     
    In all seriousness, as Selinger rightly points out, the surveillance behind such no-notice-no-consent research comes at great cost to society:
     
    Rudder’s violation of the initial contextual integrity [underpinning the collection of OKCupid user data] puts personal data to questionable secondary, social use. The use is questionable because privacy isn’t only about protecting personal information. People also have privacy interests in being able to communicate with others without feeling anxious about being excessively monitored. … [T]he resulting apprehension inhibits speech, stunts personal growth, and possibly even disinclines people from experimenting with politically relevant ideas.
     
    With every book subtitled “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking),” we, the real we, become more weary, more likely to assume that someone’s always looking. And as many members of societies that have lived with excessive surveillance have attested, that’s not a path to achieving the good life.
     
    Photo by Henning Muhlinghaus, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

     

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