Coding and ethics.

car-crashI have considered the ethics associated with the use of IT systems in the past.  In a previous series of events in the UAE one of the discussion sections focused on Google and how they use data to help refine and personalize their service.   On one hand this seems like a good thing, however Googles motivation is not altogether altruistic.   Google like most companies are out to make a profit for their shareholders and it is the data that they gather on individuals which allows them to do this.   They use the data gathered on you to allow them to target advertising.   This advertising in turn is paid for by other companies leading to Googles profit.    So one viewpoint may be that Google gather data on you, with your permission, to provide you with a personalized service; this sounds reasonably ethical.    Another viewpoint, however, might be that Google gather data on you, where most people neither understand or appreciate the type and volume of data, for the purpose of selling advertising and making a profit; this doesn’t sound quite so ethical.   When I discussed this with teachers, I did so just to suggest they consider the services being provided and the implications, and that they discuss them with students.

Consider Facebook, I would suggest that new parents starting using Facebook some years ago failed to fully understand the implications of posting every milestone of the children to the world.      Recent articles from the BBC and The Guardian seem to confirm this.

An article shared by a colleague got me to take a different perspective on things.    Considering the Facebook issue my initial thinking had put the error on the end users.   These end users had started using the site without understanding the long term implications.    Looking at google, my discussion with teachers focused on the teacher and their students considering the implications as end users.    But what if the blame, if blame might exist, falls somewhere else?

In an article in The Business Insider it is suggested that programmers need to receive ethical training.   It is the programmers which make the sites and services and define the specific functionality and operation.      If programmers at Facebook had considered the ethics of posting and sharing of an individuals life maybe the security and privacy options would have been more mature at the outset or maybe some warnings may have been displayed in relation to posting photos of your children.

Maybe a better illustration of the issue can be found looking at autonomous cars, which as we know, Google and a number of other companies are working on developing.     Lets assume an autonomous car gets into an accident resulting in damage to someone else’s vehicle and to injury.   Who is at fault?      Would it be the owner of the vehicle who may not even have been in the vehicle?   Would it be the passenger in the vehicle despite the fact they aren’t driving; it is an autonomous car.    Would it be the manufacturer of the car?     Or might it be the programmer who wrote the subsystem which failed to avoid the crash?

In future I will be more aware of the limits of a one sided viewpoint focused on the users as the decision makers; either using the service appropriately, ethically and morally or not.   The fact that a system could be used in an inappropriate or unethical way may indicate a failure of the programmers to appreciate the implications of their code, either now or in the future, or worse that the capability was programmed in, in the first place.

I also wonder about, whether with all the focus on coding in our schools, we also need to spend at least some time discussing the ethical issues surrounding programming.


Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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