Menus Subscribe Search
software

(PHOTO: ISAK55/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Should All Software Engineers Be Required to Take an Ethics Course?

• September 06, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: ISAK55/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Facebook outing students. Google collecting personal information from wireless networks. A dating app used for stalking. The creators of a new three-day ethics program believe these incidents could have been avoided.

When Irina Raicu first read about a new software program designed to take just a few details about a person, such as gender and hair color, whether or not the person has tattoos, and the number of minor offenses they’ve committed, and accurately predict how likely he or she would be to commit a felony, she got worried.

Not because Raicu, the Internet ethics program manager at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, is planning to switch to a career outside the law. She was troubled by something Jim Adler, the program’s creator, told a Bloomberg News reporter:

It’s important that geeks and suits and wonks get together and talk about these things … because geeks like me can do stuff like this, we can make stuff work—it’s not our job to figure out if it’s right or not. We often don’t know.

All too often, Raicu said, the geeks and suits and wonks simply don’t get together—at least not until the damage has already been done.

Like when Facebook inadvertently outed a few University of Texas students who had joined Queer Chorus, a student choir group. The president of the chorus added students to the group’s Facebook page, not realizing it would automatically notify all of their Facebook friends—some of whom the students hadn’t yet come out to, including family members who didn’t take the news well, to put it mildly.

Facebook added additional explanations in the Help Center and has since added additional privacy controls, but for at least those students, it was too late.

That’s part of the reason why Raicu thinks the geeks need an education in professional ethics, and worked with the Markkula Center to create a three-day crash course meant to be taken before creating new programs that could potentially affect the lives of consumers.

“You really have to think to get beyond the most obvious kinds of possible harm—failures in systems that are critical to public safety,” Irina Raicu said. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Software engineers used to work in big companies where they had checks on the choices they made. “Now, we’re talking about two guys in hoodies in a garage,” Raicu said. They deploy the code now and fix it later. “That’s why we need to get them thinking about this early.”

Software engineering students are required to take the same engineering ethics course any engineering student would, said Shannon Vallor, the software ethics curriculum’s primary author and an associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara.

In 2000, ABET, the organization that accredits university engineering programs, started formally requiring that every program teach engineering ethics. But Raicu said she doesn’t know of a single engineering ethics course that’s targeted to the challenges specific to software engineering. The classic case studies in engineering textbooks­—such as the Challenger explosion, or the fire-prone Ford Pintos—deal with catastrophic human injuries and deaths that might have been prevented.

That makes sense given the National Society for Professional Engineers’ First Fundamental Canon, which states that an engineer’s most basic ethical duty is “to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” But for software engineers, who build lines of code, not rockets and cars, it’s not so obvious what that duty means. Coders who studied computer science or an entirely unrelated field might never have seen an ethics course at all.

“You really have to think to get beyond the most obvious kinds of possible harm—failures in systems that are critical to public safety,” Raicu said. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Programmers’ work can also have much greater reach than that of other kinds of engineers, making consequences even more difficult to anticipate, Vallor added.

There’s no ethics checklist, and there probably never will be. Instead, Vallor and Raicu hope to make ethics part of the software development process, something engineers constantly return to as they see how their work is being used.

In other words, they don’t think that if Mark Zuckerberg and company had sat down and had an intellectual discussion about privacy rights when Facebook was in its dorm room infancy, all of our problems—past, present, and future—would be solved.

“Users will always do things with technology that we didn’t anticipate,” Vallor said. “Ethics isn’t a due diligence where you check off the boxes and you’re done.”

Sometimes ethical issues prompt action. After the outcry when Google revealed that Street View vehicles had been “wardriving”—collecting and storing personal information from unsecured wireless networks—in 2010, the company temporarily grounded Street View cars, appointed a director of privacy to monitor engineering, trained employees on responsible data collection and use, and added stronger privacy protections for its projects. But often there’s simply an apologetic acknowledgement coupled with a resigned sigh to the effect that technology simply moves faster than laws and social norms. Eventually people will adapt.

That struck Raicu as odd. “At some point, it became acceptable that instead of technology meeting our needs, it creates needs and we’ll catch up.” she said. “Why not make technology that’s responsive to what we need and want?”

Any technology creates disruption. Just ask the horse and buggy industry. The difference, Raicu said, is that with software, most people don’t understand the changes under way. It’s hard for people to discuss privacy and the Internet when they don’t really know what’s being collected, or how. She hopes programmers eventually get better at communicating with non-geeks, and take more responsibility for ethical choices before problems get to the lawyers.

The Markkula Center’s course module was released earlier this month and so far seven schools have signed on. Vallor is already working on a follow-up edition, including more case studies.

For example, there’s the Girls Around Me app, which picked up personal data from nearby phones to identify and message single women in the users’ vicinity. It was pulled from Apple’s App Store, but only after an outcry from smartphone users who saw it as less a tool for dating than stalking.

Or Twitter’s new in-tweet “report abuse” button. How can programmers promote free speech without making it so users have no remedy for harassment?

What do Vallor and Raicu hope for? For starters, a more carefully considered approach to development—just because coders can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that they should—combined with more dialogue between the geeks and, well, everybody else.

“These kids are smart, but they’re not used to thinking about ethics in the context of their profession,” Raicu said. “We’re hoping that if we can get professors to talk about this, at least for a day, students will take it from there.”

Lauren Zumbach
Lauren Zumbach is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has written for Hemispheres, Forbes India, and the Jakarta Globe. Follow her on Twitter @laurenzumbach.

More From Lauren Zumbach

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.