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Engineering News Winter 2018

On Ethics and Trustworthiness in the Digital Age

For years, computer engineering Associate Professor Ahmed Amer has passionately focused his research on data storage, but these days new concerns are starting to take the forefront. To Amer, seemingly disparate questions of how to preserve our digital memories reliably, how to establish the trustworthiness and provenance of information found online, and how to deal with information gathered from burgeoning numbers of sources and sensors, such as images from police officers’ body cameras, all relate to larger, overarching issues. How can data benefit people without disturbing their privacy?

“We need to rethink how we store what we store, but while carefully considering and reconsidering for what purposes we are storing it,” Amer said. “We need to look at the ethics of how we store data. It may seem like we know how to store and communicate our data reliably, but the sheer volume of data raises some fundamental questions about what we mean by ‘reliably.’ Our biggest concerns used to be preserving data if hardware failed. I now believe that’s far from all there is to it. As a simple example, if the 1s and 0s survive but I can’t trust that someone hasn’t changed them, then there is a problem beyond their values surviving the failure of a drive. We need to look at all the elements going into trusting that data is stored well—computer security research and database research, certainly, but where I feel we really need to start looking more carefully is at the human element. The processes by which data is created, referenced, and verified need to be handled better. It’s not a single problem; it encompasses many domains and takes on many forms,” he added.

Putting his students to work on these issues, Amer leads both undergraduates and graduates in examining problems ranging from verifying the authenticity of online articles to verifying the provenance of articles and citation chains.

As for himself, Amer spends a lot of his time thinking about the ethics of protecting the public’s safety and privacy, particularly in light of concerns over the use and misuse of body cameras on police and other security officers, the privacy of individuals’ data as they travel or cross borders, and the increasing ubiquity of video and audio recording devices in our private and professional lives.

“What do you do with the information from a police body cam? How can you ensure the responsible and limited use of such data by the state? How can you have a trustworthy record if the recorder can turn the camera on and off at will, or is able to modify or delete the data after the recording has been made? Solutions to these problems are never purely technical. While restrictions on recording might seem to be the matter at hand, it’s really more a question of what happens to the data and with whom (if anyone) it can be ethically shared. Personally, I find the idea of restricting people’s ability to record, like attempts to ban photography and videography in public spaces, to often be a form of policing and restricting memories, and therefore deeply offensive. We often need to rethink how we are managing data in relation to the purpose for which it is being used,” he said. “Beyond the ‘how’ of building massive data stores, we need to keep a sharper focus on the ‘why.’”

As technology advances, issues of trustworthiness and ethics will only become more complex. “How we ethically manage the data we store is never going to be something we don’t look at long and hard,” said Amer.

Photo: Heidi Williams