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December 15, 2016 18:56 +0000  |  Engineering Ethics 6

Something amazing is happening in my industry right now and I want to take a minute to talk about it.

Americans are freaking out. They're staring down the barrel of the very real possibility that the Trump administration will draw up lists of Muslims living the United States. This is a dangerous first step toward dictatorship and the end of rule of law, and those of us paying attention are understandably worried.

The American engineering community is slowly arriving at a state of self consciousness though: a few of them have banded together and written a pledge stating in short, that if the US government wants to build technology to destroy the country, then they're going to have to find someone else to do it:

We, the undersigned, are employees of tech organizations and companies based in the United States. We are engineers, designers, business executives, and others whose jobs include managing or processing data about people. We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies. We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.

We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out. We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others. We recall the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We recognize that mass deportations precipitated the very atrocity the word genocide was created to describe: the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey. We acknowledge that genocides are not merely a relic of the distant past—among others, Tutsi Rwandans and Bosnian Muslims have been victims in our lifetimes.

Today we stand together to say: not on our watch, and never again.

And they didn't stop there. They've done what engineers do best, they built something: a platform to allow other people to add their names. The list currently stands at 1239 people with new pull requests (the process by which people request to be added) happening so fast that they literally have had problems keeping up.

What's more, the whole thing is being developed in the open and you can watch the process unfold. Just yesterday afternoon I was following this ticket where they were debating how to solve the onslaught of applicants and introduce some uniformity for scale. The software chosen was Free, Open, and conforming to a universal standard that's easy to follow.

What's exciting about this, for me at least, is that this could very well be the beginning of a Code of Ethics for software engineering: developed in the open by ourselves, in an effort to operate as a community for the greater good.

Ethics in engineering is nothing new of course. The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer has been a thing in Canada since 1922 in an effort to make sure that, in the interest of the Public Good, engineers who built bridges would adhere to ethics rather than employer directives.

Historically however, software engineering has been a Wild West of people doing whatever they want, with zero focus on the ethics of what we're doing. It's my hope that if anything comes out of a Trump presidency, a sense of responsibility for our actions should be it.

There's a lot of potential here. In an ideal world, I'd like to see companies and Free software projects adopting a policy of only collaborating with engineers who have signed the pledge: a simple declaration that we are thinking people with moral compasses who are responsible for our actions. In much the same way that companies, conferences, and projects have codes of conduct, I think it's time that we acknowledge that ethics should be an integral part of what we do.

This is just one project though, and a rather US-centric one at that, so I'm not sure it has the legs required to get us to where I think we need to be, but it's a start, and I'm absolutely thrilled that we're finally having this conversation.


Janine Sebastian
15 Dec 2016, 7:40 p.m.  | 

Sounds like it is definitely a step in the right direction. Is it exclusive to US tech workers? I know that due to the nature of the job, a lot of tech work can be done from almost anywhere, and the incoming US administration is not exactly unlikely to try outsourcing the information gathering should they find resistance in their own backyard.

Daniel Quinn
15 Dec 2016, 8:02 p.m.  | 

The pledge is currently US-only, though there's an issue ticket about just that, but I don't think anyone has any illusions about a pledge like this actually preventing a motivated dictator (with close ties to Russia) from getting some code written. I think this is more about refusing to be a cog in the machine.

Janine Sebastian
15 Dec 2016, 8:32 p.m.  | 

Oh, I get that, I'm just saying that it would make more sense to allow people from around the world to join the pledge, as it isn't just about this one issue, but any potentially ethically questionable one in the future too. I'm sure you're not the only one in a different part of the world who would join the pledge to refuse to be a part of anything like that if they could. Hopefully they address that issue ticket.

15 Dec 2016, 8:37 p.m.  | 

Good that there is such an initiative, and I have two comments:

  • in this article there are some references to documents about ethics in crypto, programming & measurements.

  • altho the first commitments states: "We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information ... based on race, religion, or national origin" -- however, most of the users on social-media sites already have shared that information with the platform owner... so I see this as a contradiction. Are these people going to quit their jobs at fB00k?

Thanks for the pointer to the "Ritual" - that was new to me! And see you at FOSDEM!

Daniel Quinn
15 Dec 2016, 10:33 p.m.  | 

That "social media does it" loophole was mentioned on Reddit when this story broke, and I think that the wording of the pledge doesn't do a good enough addressing the fine ethical line we have to walk on stuff like this. The way I see it though is:

  • If your boss asks you to build a site in which people might voluntarily ask you to store their race, religion, or national origin, that seems fine to me. I don't like Facebook, so I don't use it.
  • If your boss asks you to build a system that collects this information without the consent of the listed members for the purposes of generating an authoritative listing, then that's not ok.

Honestly though, this is the kind of situation that has to dug into at length, involving philosophers and ethicists as well as engineers. I don't think a couple of hackers can pull one together in a weekend :-)

But yes, FOSDEM! I'm looking forward to it. Maybe you should lead a talk on this very subject!

Mom #2
9 Jan 2017, 6:01 a.m.  | 

Now, more than ever before, the world needs people who lead through a strong moral base.

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