crypto and public policy

Software Code of Ethics

Filed under: Security & Crypto June 24, 2004 @ 11:02 am

Slate has a simple but particularly on-the-mark article about how “the entire software industry has been designed around our computer illiteracy.” The article blames this setup for the widespread spyware problem.

There’s a lot of truth in that. One could say that “designing around illiteracy” is appropriate for just about any complicated consumer product: cars, microwave ovens, DVD players, TVs, etc… The whole point of a good user interface is to hide the complexity of the underlying mechanisms from the user, all the while executing the user’s desired actions with ease and loyalty.

It’s in that latter part that many software vendors fail. When many user-desirable features are designed to be impossible to find and user’s desires are simply ignored, one begins to question the software vendor’s ethics.

Spyware is the most obvious offender: it installs without proper warning, operates below the user’s radar, and, once discovered, refuses to be uninstalled. That said, it’s not the only offender. DVD players force you to watch the FBI warning for 15 seconds even if you’ve seen it twenty times already. Certain web browsers or media players will surreptitiously change your settings so that competing products are harder to use.

The question every software vendor should ask themselves is simple: “if my users understood the details of what this software is designed to do, would a large portion of them feel cheated/ripped-off/abused?” If the answer is yes, then the software is unethical.

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