Reading07: Data gathering isn’t always good… but it’s not always bad, either

Reading07: Data gathering isn’t always good… but it’s not always bad, either

I’m honestly not sure how to judge the use of data gathering/mining in order to sell customers goods and services. There is definitely a point that goes too far, but there’s also a degree that is logical and necessary for a company to function well. How do we draw a line between these two? When does a company go too far?

It seems fitting and necessary for a company to aggregate data one their customers that are directly pertinent to their business. I wouldn’t begrudge a supermarket for tracking my purchases and using my purchasing habits to send me coupons or alert me on deals I’m interested in. That seems fitting and logical.

However, I’m less sure about the practice of seeking out/buying additional data on consumers, even if it’s pursuant to the goals of the company. For example, when Target sought out extra data on their customers to determine who was pregnant, in order to send them targeted advertising. This is clearly in line with their “greedy strategy” – they’re doing their best to maximize their sales and profits, and capture the spending habits of additional people. But, and I think I’m far from alone in this, something feels a bit off. To have this corporate giant purchasing information about me that’s not really relevant in order to sell me things? That doesn’t feel quite right.

My initial thoughts are that the issue arises when the company seeks out and purchases additional data on people. Data gathered in the course of doing business is, in my opinion, pretty uncontroversially “fair game”. But should companies be able to purchase additional, seemingly unrelated information about us?

To say that data brokers should be abolished and are across-the-board unethical is a bit naïve. On one hand, when there is money to be made from doing this (and there clearly is), it’s not as if it’s going to stop easily. On the other, though… aren’t we deriving benefit from this?

If a pregnant woman is preparing to have a child, and receives coupons and deals from Target, isn’t she drawing benefit? Maybe money is tight, and they really make a difference. Is it so wrong for Target to benefit from this knowledge, if they’re providing a service? We’ve all benefited from the growing interconnectedness of different parts of our lives, often in ways that we don’t even think about.

To me, a large part of the concern is in what happens to personal data, and how it’s handled. Hacks and data breaches happen, and the more companies that have our personal data, the more it’s been spread around, the more opportunities there are for it to get out to people whose intentions might be less above-board, might be seeking to benefit from our loss. If there was a guarantee that the information was completely secure, would we care as much? What if Target had, after figuring out who was pregnant and acting on it, immediately deleted all the data it had gathered? Why does that feel less objectionable?

Data gathering and analysis is never going to go away. There are definitely degrees that are too much, and there should be an obligation to protect the personal information that is gathered. However, we do at times derive very real benefit from these practices. Maybe this is just the reality of the increasingly connected world we live in.

Reading06: On Encryption and Privacy

Reading06: On Encryption and Privacy

The tradeoff between privacy and security is a difficult subject. At a glance, it seems like a no-brainer that we as citizens should have a reasonable assumption that our personal lives and data are relatively secure, free from prying eyes. At the same time, though, isn’t it a good thing to be able to catch terrorists? To prevent crimes and attacks before they happen?

Progress in privacy and encryption is a double-edged sword; every protection and safeguard provided to general consumers is necessarily also made accessible to those with hostile intent. Should we hold back on encryption and privacy so that criminals aren’t protected?

I think the answer to that is no. Companies such as Apple should continue to strive for increased security and privacy for their users. It is more than fine for them to cooperate in retrieving data from criminals’ phones to help stop further attacks. However, I think they correctly drew the line at creating tools that could be used to unlock anyone’s phone.

Proponents of security sometimes use the phrase “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” I would like to counter that with an even more famous quote:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

– Martin Niemöller

Obviously at first glance, comparing iPhone privacy to the holocaust seems a little drastic. But, I think it is relevant in the statement it makes about small injustices and protections against an ill-intentioned government. In a perfect world where the American government was run by angels, then I suppose it would be true that those with nothing to hide would have nothing to fear. However, people are fallible. Bad people can get too much power, and even worse things can happen. Even barring any institutional evil or something nearly as dire as a genocide, there are still a number of reasons to err on the side of privacy.

In general, fewer people having your data is better for the consumer. I think many of us have made a kind of grudging peace with the fact that our data is getting vacuumed up no matter what we do, but the more encryption and privacy we have, the better. Even if the people collecting it could more or less be trusted, we are then relying on their data protection. If they get hacked, our data is then exposed to who knows what kind of actors. And, due to simple probability, the more people and services that have our data, the more possible failure points for it to get somewhere it doesn’t belong.

In short, I don’t think there’s very much merit to the thinking that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” More privacy, encryption, and security for consumers’ data is almost always for the better.

Reading05: Not made to be broken, but sometimes you have to try

Reading05: Not made to be broken, but sometimes you have to try

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just over a minute after its launch, killing all seven of its passengers. The failure was caused by the O-ring seals, which were known to have performed poorly in cold conditions; the temperature that morning was considerably colder than any previous launches, well below a level at which they had already observed numerous issues with the O-rings.

While the O-rings may have been the mechanical cause for the disaster, the root cause is just as much the overlooking of these issues and the decision to go ahead with the launch. NASA was under pressure, from the public and from the government, to produce tangible and demonstrable results. Roger Boisjoly, a Space Shuttle engineer, described a meeting prior to launch as “a meeting where the determination was to launch, and it was up to us to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was not safe to do so,” elaborating that “this is in total reverse to what the position usually is in a preflight conversation or a flight readiness review. It is usually exactly opposite that.”

Engineers and others involved in the program raised concerns about the launch, but for a number of reasons the decision was made to proceed with the launch. In particular raising concerns was the aforementioned engineer, Roger Boisjoly. After repeatedly being met with frustration, he eventually brought his concerns to the public in an attempt to raise awareness about the risks about the launch.

Even though the issues that he was concerned about were shown to be more than credible, this whistleblowing attempt led to Boisjoly being ostracized by colleagues, isolated by managers, and “made life a living hell on a day-to-day basis”. Boisjoly himself said that it “destroyed my career, my life, everything else.”

It’s clear that Boisjoly’s actions were punished. But we must ask the question – were his actions ethical? Should he have done this?

There were defined avenues for Boisjoly to raise concerns at work, and he did his best to use them. It was only after these proved fruitless that he turned to the public. He broke explicit and implicit rules, where professional conduct is concerned.

I would argue, however, that he was justified in doing so. All of his attempts were met with frustration, and he had good reason to believe that if these issues were not addressed, they could (and did) lead to the death of several people. There were rules in place, but he broke them in an attempt to prevent a catastrophe from happening.

Rules are rules for a reason; they govern how we should act and what is permissible. But, there is a point where you have to consider breaking them, and this depends on the severity of what might happen, and to whom. If these faulty O-rings would simply lead to his company losing money, even a substantial amount, Boisjoly, would not have had cause to go public. It was the fact that the repercussions were extremely severe and would affect those who had no part in the decision that he was right to try whatever he could to raise his concerns.

Was his employer right in retaliating against him? On one hand, he did break protocol and raise concerns to the public, something that is by and large frowned upon (for good reason). They would certainly have recourse to penalize such actions. However, for the same reason that he was justified in breaking the normal protocol, this was a time when discretion perhaps should have been used and the normal penalties not applied.

In sum, rules are rules for a reason. However, even when rules are just and proper, there are times when it is ethical to break them. One such example is here, when breaking the rules was the only option that Boisjoly had to try and prevent a catastrophe that ultimately took the lives of seven people.

Reading04: Codes of Conduct, and why it’s hard to talk about diversity

Reading04: Codes of Conduct, and why it’s hard to talk about diversity

Codes of Conduct can be and often are helpful – they can define the expectations for a community or organization, and lay out what happens when someone misbehaves, and what recourse victims may have. However, they can certainly stray too far in their scope and enforcement, and at that point they become a problem.

Codes of Conduct, when properly used, should protect the members and employees of whatever organization they are set forth by. They should provide resources for one to use if they are being harassed, avenues to report behavior issues, etc.

One of the readings for this week was an anonymous post reacting negatively to a CoC that is originally from the group Geek Feminism, but through links of influence and, in many cases, simple inclusion in other services impacts those of Twitter, Box, Yahoo, Facebook, and GitHub (at the time of its writing).

The concerns he raises are convincing, and to me seem valid and well-thought-out. In situations like this, I would say that the Code of Conduct has gone too far. It has become vague and far-reaching, to the extent that members of the community have to worry about it to the extent that it impacts their regular routines.

The cited Code of Conduct goes too far, and ceases to be a protection to the members of the community. Instead, it seems more focused on protecting the company, to the detriment of its community. Under it, the company could take action against people for what were not ill-intentioned or malicious actions.

In short, Codes of Conduct can be very beneficial, and can provide essential resources for members of the community. They are best served to protect members of the community from other members. Codes of Conduct become less positive when they instead serve to protect the company as a whole from its members – at this point they have overstepped their bounds, and should be cut back to some extent.

As a sidenote: this week, I chose the “easier” or “safer” prompt – writing about Code of Conducts rather than the issues of the gender gap and diversity/discrimination in the workplace. To be honest, this was in large-ish part because I’m not certain I can, in 500 words, express my feelings on the issue in a way that I think I can staunchly stand behind (as this blog is public and tied to my name). I’d much rather discuss it in class.

In short, though, (because this hesitance could be taken as “I think women don’t belong in CS, just don’t want to say it publicly”, so I feel I should at least mention my thoughts on the matter) I think that there are unquestionably areas that the industry needs to improve to be more welcoming to people who aren’t white males. It’s just that 50% might not be the equilibrium point, if all those who want to do CS are enabled to, and so that division shouldn’t be held up as the gold standard. We’re still far from having to worry about swinging too far in that direction, though.

This reluctance to make a statement on such a tenuous issue is at least slightly reminiscent of the Google memo controversy. Only slightly – I hardly stand to be fired from a job (I don’t think Notre Dame would expel me over a well-meaning but bumbling expression on a random blog) – but there is that hesitance to express myself publicly, even if it is a good-faith effort. I think James Damore was trying to raise awareness for what he genuinely believed to be an issue that he thought people should be more aware of. There are certainly parts of his memo that I disagree with, but the fact that he was fired does raise those same questions that he was asking – is Google (and to a greater extent, the tech industry), becoming an echo chamber? How can we raise questions about these things without facing backlash? He circulated this memo internally – did he do wrong, and should he have been fired for it? (I understand that Google more or less had to because of the public outcry, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to happen.)

At the end of the day, these are hard issues to discuss because they have been moralized. When it becomes a held belief about right and wrong rather than ideas on how best to address a problem, it becomes much more difficult to hold rational discussions between differing viewpoints.

Reading03: I don’t want to be CEO, and that should be okay.

Reading03: I don’t want to be CEO, and that should be okay.

Can men and women have it all? That all depends on how we define “all”.

I think it’s clear that as we graduate college and enter the workforce (or go into grad school/academia) that we have to make decisions on how to spend our time – there are tradeoffs between hobbies, family, work, etc. I think the core problem when we discuss “having it all” is the way we look at our work.

We hold high-achieving, C-Level people as the most successful, the peak of workplace success. However, these are largely people who have made decisions to focus on their work over the rest of their lives. Personally, I would never want to be a CEO/CTO/CIO/etc – at this point in my life, I think that family and life outside work is too important to me to hold a role like that.

I want to be clear: I am saying that we shouldn’t view people negatively for choosing family over work. We should have the freedom to prioritize the different parts of our lives. At the same time, though, we shouldn’t begrudge those who do put work first – everyone has different goals and priorities. However, it is sensible to some extent to reward those who put work first to some extent; such a person would naturally be a better choice for a CEO. We just need to take care not to do so at the expense of those with other priorities.

After saying this, I suppose I would say it’s either impossible or prohibitively difficult to “have it all”. That is, if you define “having it all” as advancing far in the workplace while at the same time raising a family (or meeting other very involved non-work related goals). Tradeoffs must be made – for as long as I can remember, I’ve known that I want to have a family. That will (hopefully) be a priority for me in my post-graduate life, and I will likely make decisions that place family before work.

Still, if I am raising a family and also working, I have an obligation to place work at a reasonably high priority, enough to be a productive member of the company. However, the more pertinent issue at this time seems to be about the behavior of the company.

I think that employers should do their best to be accommodating of those who don’t put work first. If someone is trying to be a productive employee, but also holds family as a priority, they should be welcomed in, with the understanding that if they need someone to work 60+ hours a week, they should look elsewhere.

This is where the “greedy algorithm” fails – it’s in the employer’s best interest for its employees to all put work first. This is the kind of atmosphere that Amazon appears to be trying to cultivate, from the reading this week. It’s the strategy that leads to the most material gain for the company, at the expense of its employees.

However, this strategy doesn’t lead to the best outcome for everyone. Those who have other priorities can’t find a spot in a workplace like this, and will burn-out, have conflicts, or worse. An ethical workplace should have an understanding that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the #1 priority in each of its workers’ lives.

Reading02: Negotiation, Huh?

Reading02: Negotiation, Huh?

I haven’t negotiated anything in my (admittedly short) employment history. My only experiences so far have been internships, and I haven’t heard very much about people negotiation the terms of their internship. I had a pretty laissez-faire attitude about the terms, though – I didn’t consider negotiation and decide against; I honestly paid little attention to the terms before accepting.

I think that’s pretty typical, though. As I apply and interview for full-time positions, I definitely think I should negotiate my contract to some extent. Knowing myself, I probably won’t be “playing hardball” by any means, and very well could end up doing a token negotiation before accepting.

That’s one of the reasons I’m very glad to have done these readings – a lot of it makes sense, and it’s clear that you can get considerable benefit by negotiating before accepting a job. I knew this beforehand, but I didn’t really think about how to go through the process and didn’t have any specific knowledge of things to look for or strategies to use. I’ll definitely refer back to these resources when I’m negotiating an offer (hopefully relatively soon!).

I mentioned earlier that I might end up doing a “token negotiation” before accepting. By this, I mean that I wouldn’t consider myself very assertive in unfamiliar or stressful situations, and so I don’t think I would be very comfortable negotiating terms of my employment. If I make some sort of counter-offer that gets accepted, even if it’s small, I would likely pat myself on the back for negotiating at all and consider it done, even if I was leaving a lot more on the table.

For this reason, I’d say that I could have a lower starting salary (or other benefits) than a hypothetical student with similar experience or abilities, but a personality more suited to negotiation. It makes sense, and I’d say this likely happens across the tech industry – people in a similar role or station might have different salaries due simply to how much they negotiated right at the beginning.

This obviously isn’t ideal – people should be paid according to the value of the work they should do, or the value of their skills. I think in a perfect world it would be a meritocracy, where salaries would be independent of negotiation, but that’s not realistic. This negotiation climate is the natural conclusion of the situation. Each party wants to maximize their resources, and so they are incentivized to be less up-front about the situation.

This would be much more acceptable if the two parties were in a position of equal power. They are not – the employer has much more than the prospective employee – and there are additional factors that could disincentivize an employee from negotiation. They’re in a strange situation, being in an adversarial relationship with their soon-to-be employer.

I would say it’s not ideal, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s unethical. It’s just another example of a time when the rewards aren’t tied to merit quite as directly as they perhaps should be, and there are much large issues that should be addressed first.

Reading 01: A Danger of Hacker Culture

Reading 01: A Danger of Hacker Culture

What is a hacker? The answer to this question has changed quite a bit over recent years. Initially, a hacker was a reclusive computer expert, likely social inept, who could do incredible things but had a one-track mind of sorts – hacking is more or less all they do. Recently, it’s been flipped on its head: a hacker is someone skilled in the areas that can change the world, someone who’s not afraid to solve the problems they see, regardless of what the establishment thinks! Programming is a superpower!

While this looks to some like a more positive view of “hackers” (the result of those “hackers” starting to be the ones with power), I think this can be damaging in its own way. That’s always the risk when a trait like this becomes something you are rather than something that you do. Nobody says “I hack.” People say “I’m a hacker!”  It’s not simply a question of skill, attitude, or any one thing. It becomes a question of how one lives one life.

Computer science, and the tech industry as a whole, still has many social problems. Chief among them is the issue of diversity. There has also been a recent push for imposter syndrome to be recognized and combatted. Given that this is the case, why, why are we all celebrating this image of a hacker? We’re pushing the idea that if you don’t check all these boxes, don’t write network APIs for fun, you’re not a hacker! You don’t belong! This kind of gatekeeping can only be harmful to the industry.

A startling example is from “Hackers and Painters” When discussing hiring practices, Paul Graham writes that “When we interviewed programmers, the main thing we cared about was what kind of software they wrote in their spare time. You can’t do anything really well unless you love it, and if you love to hack you’ll inevitably be working on projects of your own.”

What?! No! Is work/life balance a thing of the past? How does this look to an outsider?

Consider someone with an interest in the tech industry trying to figure out if it’s for them. “Hmm,” they might think, ”is this for me? Am I the right fit for this kind of work?” Then, they read this quote. “Guess not, I want to raise a family!” How do people not see how destructive this could be to the culture of programming?

We should dial it back just a bit. Yes, I won’t disagree that some of the truly “disruptive” (buzzword alert!) new projects and software are more likely to come from those that spend all of their free time coding away. But, we should push back against the notion that this is the only way to be a computer scientist. We should be free to pursue other things in our free time – have a hobby! Play an instrument! Raise a family! – without feeling that it makes us somehow less in the eyes of the tech world.

Reading 00: Utilitarianism, Mostly

Reading 00: Utilitarianism, Mostly

It’s hard to explicitly articulate how exactly I decide if something is right or wrong – by nature, a lot of it will simply be the product of experience and more nuanced than I can easily write – but I’ll do my best. In short, I think my views have a large utilitarian component to them, with the focus or motivation being on the resulting society or common good that results. In terms of the reading, I’d say I lean towards the Consequentialist theories, with a mixture of the Utilitarian and Common Good approaches.

A quick disclaimer: I don’t have any formal experience with ethics, so this is neither going to be a tidy idea that sits neatly in the ethics box, nor an expression of hard and fast rules that I would stick to without qualifications. That said, I’ll do my best to express myself.

The short way that I would express my thinking is “What would happen if everyone behaved this way?” Now, this sounds like the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” However, I don’t mean to make statements about the universality of rules or actions like the categorical imperative does – I think that’s reductive, and any reasonable system should have more nuance.

I’m more concerned with the motivations behind these actions. I’ve always found emergent behavior from simple rules very interesting – for example, things like linked lists or cellular automata exhibit very interesting properties from a set of relatively small constraints. In the same way, I think that in even small actions, the way we give and take can add up to have large impacts on the larger communities we’re a part of. Instead of “should everyone take this action or follow this rule?”, my thinking is more along the line of “should everyone weigh their own needs against those of others in this way?”

This is where my thinking more resembles utilitarianism. I agree with much of utilitarianism – I think that if everyone strives to have a net positive impact on the world, to leave people better off than they met them, it could make a profound difference. However, “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” People have different needs and abilities, and at times being willing to accept help or an “unfair” distribution in your favor can be as important as offering help or giving up something of yours for others’ benefit.

This way of thinking can trivially decide between right and wrong in a lot of cases, simply by taking an idea to its extreme. Is murder wrong? Well, if everyone murdered people, that certainly wouldn’t work. It’s the same with just about any crime, or other actions that are more or less unanimously agreed on as bad. The times when I lean on this thinking are more questions of what would be the best course (rather than black and white), particularly in questions of common resources and their allocation.

One possible weakness to this way of thinking are situations like the prisoner’s dilemma, in which the solution that’s optimal to everyone is not the optimal strategy for single actors – that is, situations where someone trying to think of the group could be “taken advantage of” by people who don’t have the same intentions.

Obviously you have to consider the chances for this and be careful not to expose yourself to huge risk (irresponsible altruism can be naïve), but by and large I think one should still try for the group outcome anyway. Someone has to take the first step if anything can change for the better.



Hello! I’m Jacob Beiter, and this is my blog for CSE 40175 – Ethics and Professional Development. This is where I’ll be putting  my responses to the course material, which will hopefully be at least somewhat interesting and thought-out. We’ll see!

A bit about me – I’m a senior studying Computer Science, hailing originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, living in Keenan Hall, very involved in the band, etc etc (get that Notre Dame introduction out of the way).

I first got involved with Computer Science because I found both that it was fun and I was pretty good at it. As I’ve gone through college this has refined somewhat, but at the core it’s still because the kind of problem-solving via decomposition and precise description/understanding of problems that computer science focuses on is right up my alley.

In that vein, I’m still a generalist within CS, and haven’t given a ton of thought to what it means to be a computer scientist, or the different ways that I can or should apply the skills I’m learning here. That’s what I’m hoping to get out of this class – I’m hoping to think a little more broadly, and spend time considering and discussing the kinds of issues that a responsible member of the computer science community needs to be aware of.