Immoral, Illegal, or Creepy…


About 5 years ago, I designed and started teaching CS 105, a computer science course entitled Privacy and Technology. The course grew out of a National Academies study that I had co-chaired, where it became apparent that people who knew about policy often didn’t know about technology, and those that knew about technology had no idea about how policy was made. I thought it would be good to bring the two groups together, and the subject of privacy seemed to be a reasonable place to start. After all, technology (at the time, such things as wireless sensors, RFID tags, and surveillance cameras) was often seen as impinging on privacy, and so the combination of privacy and technology seemed a good place to get people thinking about some of these issues.

I was pretty sure that privacy was going to be an important subject when we started the class (it was always a group effort, started by Michael Smith and me and joined by Latanya Sweeney and a crew of undergraduate and graduate TAs that have all had a hand in shaping the course). We have always let the privacy controversies that were current at the time shape the class (it is one of the only classes I know at Harvard that starts every day with a section on “current events”). But I had no idea that it was going to become as central to the public debate, either at Harvard or in the country, as it has become in the past few months. It seems sort of quaint that we were worried about RFID tags when the class first started, given the worries that we have now.

I’m not sure what I think about the current controversies, either local or national; I’d like to find out a lot more about the facts than I know right now before I come to a conclusion. But I will make a couple of observations, even this early in the game.

The first is that the reason for establishing the course is just as valid now as it was then. Watching the discussions and reading the debates, both local and national, about electronic privacy shows me once again the distance between those who make the policies and laws and those who understand the technology. The policy makers discussions of meta-data, the internet, and database technology is pretty uninformed. But often equally uninformed are the technologists discussions about the law and what guarantees we have or ought to have. The original reason for the course, which is to bring these worlds together, has not disappeared.

My second observation is that all who are in this discussion (and I’m glad to see how many are taking part) might want to think about one of the first distinctions we introduce in the course. This is a distinction between what is immoral, what is illegal, and what is creepy. Something is immoral if it violates an ethical code; this is the purview of philosophers (a group I was part of long ago) and can shed lots of light (or at least lots of distinctions) on the subject. And while we try to base our laws on ethical theories, laws are not able to fully reflect those theories. So the fact that something is immoral doesn’t mean that it is illegal; that is a matter left up to the lawyers and, more particularly, to the judges who interpret the laws. And both of these are different from something being creepy, which is simply a description of an emotional reaction we have to a situation. The fact that this reaction is emotion doesn’t make it any less real, and may be an indicative of the situation breaking some moral code. But it isn’t the same.

When looking at a supposed privacy violation, it is often reasonable to ask which of these three categories the violation falls into. The government building a database of all of the phone meta-data on all of its citizens is certainly creepy. I don’t know if it is illegal; that would need to be decided by the courts (and I hope it will be at some time in the very near future). And whether or not it is immoral is a much deeper question, having to do with the kinds of tradeoffs that are needed and the underpinnings of your ethics. It is the right question to ask, but it is a difficult one to answer.

The discussions of privacy aren’t about to go away or get any simpler. They are very important, and I’m glad that we are having them. And on a selfish note, they are going to make the next edition of CS 105 (coming up this fall) really interesting.

End of the year ramblings…
Privacy and Anonymity

1 Comment »

  1. rprasad

    July 9, 2013 @ 1:18 pm


    Snowden-like situation from 1970:

    With the exception that Pyle was taken in by Senator Ervin and later Senator Church to assist with work on civil liberties and intelligence oversight.

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