March 15, 2017

GUEST ROOM | The Ubiquity of Ethics and Software

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The pressing topic of cybersecurity has resurfaced in the public conscious following the news of Russian hackers leaking thousands of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee. Software might be developed for one clear-cut purpose, but more often than not, the technology’s ethical ramifications are disregarded by engineers. In the case of the Russian hacking, the individuals that perpetrated the cyberattack broke a moral code by intentionally hacking to commit an illegal act. For software engineers, their innovative skills come with a great deal of responsibility. Although an engineer’s top priority is efficiency, they must not overlook ethics. Taking into account the privacy of the user, the rule of law and the unforeseen consequences of software is as important as the algorithm itself. Although the conversation about ethics in the technology sphere has gained momentum, it is still in its infancy. With software becoming ubiquitous, every line of code instils a great deal of power.

Online privacy and data security have generated concern among many in the past decade — to the point where even Mark Zuckerberg covers his laptop camera to prevent hackers from “ratting.” Some might believe this behavior mimics paranoia. Others stress the need for privacy codes of conduct within the software engineering profession. When Edward Snowden leaked evidence exposing two government programs intended to hack into computer microphones and cameras, technology companies started rethinking the ethical impact of their software. Privacy policies are often the best way for software engineers to check how their software gathers information about consumers. For instance, a software engineer at Facebook must think not only about how to develop a new and innovative feature for “News Feed,” but also how that feature must not collect information that the user would not want public or did not consent to release. The “only me” option for photo albums is constantly used by Facebook members; software engineers must ensure this option holds true to its name.

As more and more people are going into technology, there has been a heightened sense of urgency for engineers to think about the legality, in addition to the efficiency and quality, of their software. Meeting legal standards is of utmost importance when marketing a new product. However, most software engineers run on tight deadlines. They must be able to respond to pressure with the same velocity as they would be when downing a cup of coffee. When Facebook was criticized after the 2016 presidential election for allowing fake news stories to spread through its infrastructure, the company quickly responded to the scrutiny by introducing a new fact-checking feature. Because software engineers cannot foresee every consequence that could result from their work, they must be ready to deal with ethical issues when they arise — even when eye strain is becoming an issue.

As a student studying technology, I recognize the need for transparency. I support the notion that a greater emphasis should be placed on the ethical implications of software development. Any type of software has broad ethical ramifications; it is the engineers who have the responsibility to take humanity into account when developing technologies.

 

Maya Frai is a freshman at Cornell University. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com.