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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 social good. clear filter
  •  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!

  •  Harrison Bergeron in Silicon Valley

    Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2015
    Certain eighth graders I know have been reading “Harrison Bergeron,” so I decided to re-read it, too. The short story, by Kurt Vonnegut, describes a dystopian world in which, in an effort to make all people equal, a government imposes countervailing handicaps on all citizens who are somehow naturally gifted: beautiful people are forced to wear ugly masks; strong people have to carry around weights in proportion to their strength; graceful people are hobbled; etc. In order to make everybody equal, in other words, all people are brought to the lowest common denominator. The title character, Harrison Bergeron, is particularly gifted and therefore particularly impaired. As Vonnegut describes him,
    … Harrison's appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.
    Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.
    And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.
    In classroom discussions, the story is usually presented as a critique of affirmative action. Such discussions miss the fact that affirmative action aims to level the playing field, not the players.
    In the heart of Silicon Valley, in a land that claims to value meritocracy but ignores the ever more sharply tilted playing field, “Harrison Bergeron” seems particularly inapt. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it should be read, only in conjunction with stories like CNN’s recent interactive piece titled “The Poor Kids of Silicon Valley.” Or the piece by KQED’s Rachel Myrow, published last month, which notes that 30% of Silicon Valley’s population lives “below self-sufficiency standards,” and that “the income gap is wider than ever, and wider in Silicon Valley than elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or California.”
    What such (nonfiction, current) stories make clear is that we are, in fact, already hanging weights and otherwise hampering people in our society.  It’s just that we don’t do it to those particularly gifted; we do it to the most vulnerable ones. The kids who have to wake up earlier because they live far from their high-school and have to take two buses since their parents can’t drive them to school, and who end up sleep deprived and less able to learn—the burden is on them. The kids who live in homeless shelters and whose brains might be impacted, long-term, by the stress of poverty—the burden is on them.  The people who work as contractors with limited or no benefits—the burden is on them. The parents who have to work multiple jobs, can’t afford to live close to work, and have no time to read to their kids—the burden is on all of them.
    In a Wired article about a growing number of Silicon Valley “techie” parents who are opting to home-school their kids, Jason Tanz expresses some misgivings about the subject but adds,
    My son is in kindergarten, and I fear that his natural curiosity won’t withstand 12 years of standardized tests, underfunded and overcrowded classrooms, and constant performance anxiety. The Internet has already overturned the way we connect with friends, meet potential paramours, buy and sell products, produce and consume media, and manufacture and deliver goods. Every one of those processes has become more intimate, more personal, and more meaningful. Maybe education can work the same way.
    Set aside the question of whether those processes have indeed become more intimate and meaningful; let’s concentrate on a different question about the possibility that, with the help of the Internet, education might “work the same way”: For whom?
    Are naturally curious and creative kids being hampered by standardized tests and underfunded and overcrowded classrooms? Well then, in Silicon Valley, some of those kids will be homeschooled. The Wired article quotes a homeschooling parent who optimistically foresees a day “when you can hire a teacher by the hour, just as you would hire a TaskRabbit to assemble your Ikea furniture.” As to what happens to the kids of the TaskRabbited teacher? If Harrison Bergeron happens to be one of those, he will be further hampered, and nobody will check whether the weight of the burden will be proportional to anything.
    Meritocracy is a myth when social inequality becomes as vast as it has become in Silicon Valley. Teaching “Harrison Bergeron” to eighth graders in this environment is a cruel joke.
    (Photo by Ken Banks, cropped, used under a Creative Commons license.)
  •  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.


  •  “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.


  •  Should You Watch? On the Responsibility of Content Consumers

    Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2014

    This fall, Internet users have had the opportunity to view naked photographs of celebrities (which were obtained without approval, from private iCloud accounts, and then—again without consent—distributed widely).  They were also able to watch journalists and an aid worker being beheaded by a member of a terrorist organization that then uploaded the videos of the killings to various social media channels.  And they were also invited to watch a woman being rendered unconscious by a punch from a football player who was her fiancé at the time; the video of that incident was obtained from a surveillance camera inside a hotel elevator.

    These cases have been accompanied by heated debates around the issues of journalism ethics and the responsibilities of social media platforms. Increasingly, though, a question is arising about the responsibility of the Internet users themselves—the consumers of online content. The question is, should they watch?
    Would You Watch [the beheading videos]?” ask CNN and ABC News. “Should You Watch the Ray Rice Assault Video?” asks Shape magazine. “Should We Look—Or Look Away?” asks Canada’s National Post. And, in a broader article about the “consequences and import of ubiquitous, Internet-connected photography” (and video), The Atlantic’s Robinson Mayer reflects on all three of the cases noted above; his piece is titled “Pics or It Didn’t Happen.”
    Many commentators have argued that to watch those videos or look at those pictures is a violation of the privacy of the victims depicted in them; that not watching is a sign of respect; or that the act of watching might cause new harm to the victims or to people associated with them (friends, family members, etc.). Others have argued that watching the beheading videos is necessary “if the depravity of war is to be understood and, hopefully, dealt with,” or that watching the videos of Ray Rice hitting his fiancé will help change people’s attitudes toward domestic violence.
    What do you think?
    Would it be unethical to watch the videos discussed above? Why?
    Would it be unethical to look at the photos discussed above? Why?
    Are the three cases addressed above so distinct from each other that one can’t give a single answer about them all?  If so, which of them would you watch, or refuse to watch, and why?
    Photo by Matthew Montgomery, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.
  •  The New Digital Divide

    Monday, May. 20, 2013

    Kim Polese, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and innovator, addresses a new and growing digital divide: the one between those who have high-speed wired broadband access to the Internet in their homes, and those who don't.  Many of the services that we increasingly rely on in our daily lives require such access; Polese argues that the lack of affordable high-speed broadband access magnifies the inequalities in our society, keeping both necessities and opportunities out of reach for many Americans.

    In a recent New York Times article, law professor Susan Crawford agrees with this assessment: she describes "[h]igh capacity fiber connections to homes and businesses" as "a social good" (as well as a business imperative).  Both Polese and Crawford call for increased regulatory oversight in order to bring about affordable and widespread broadband access in the U.S.