Our societies are undergoing pervasive digitalization. It is not an understatement to say that every facet of human endeavor is being profoundly changed by the use of computing and digital technologies. Naturally such sweeping changes also bring forth ethical issues that computing professionals have to face and deal with. The question is: are they being equipped to deal with such issues?
Ethical concerns in computing are widely recognized. For example, the recent upsurge in the popularity of applying machine learning techniques to a variety of problems has led to several ethical questions. Biases inherent in training data can render systems based on machine learning to be unfair in their decisions. Identifying such sources of unfairness and making machine learning systems accountable is an active research topic. Similarly, the rise of autonomous systems has led to questions like how to deal with the moral aspects of autonomous decision making and how societies can respond to people whose professions may be rendered obsolete by the deployment of autonomous systems.
Ethics in information security: The profession of information security has its own share of ethical considerations it has been grappling with. Among them are: privacy concerns of large scale data collection, the use of end-to-end cryptography in communication systems, wiretapping and large scale surveillance, and the practice of weaponizing software vulnerabilities for the purpose of “offensive security”.
The Vault 7 story: The latter issue was brought forth in dramatic fashion earlier this month when Wikileaks published a collection of documents which they called “Vault 7”. It consisted of information on a very large number of vulnerabilities in popular software platforms like Android and iOS that can be used to compromise end systems based on those platforms. That national intelligence agencies use such vulnerabilities are offensive weapons did not come as a surprise. But the Wikileaks revelation led to a flurry of discussion on the ethics of how vulnerabilities should be handled. Over the years, the information security community has developed best practices for dealing with vulnerabilities. Timely and “responsible disclosure” of vulnerabilities to affected vendors is a cornerstone of such practices. Using vulnerabilities for offence is at odds with responsible disclosure. As George Danezis, a well-known information security expert and professor at University College London, put it, “Not only government “Cyber” doctrine corrupts directly this practice, by hoarding security bugs and feeding an industry that does not contribute to collective computer security, but it also corrupts the process indirectly.” But when a government intelligence agency finds a new vulnerability, the decision on when to disclose it to the vendors concerned is a complex one. As another well-known expert and academic, Matt Blaze pointed out, on the one hand, an adversary may find the same vulnerability and use it against innocent people and institutions, which calls for immediate disclosure leading to a timely fix. On the other hand, the vulnerability can help intelligence agencies to thwart adversaries from harming innocent people which is the rationale for delaying disclosure. Blaze reasoned that this decision should be informed by the likelihood that a vulnerability is rediscovered but concluded that despite several studies, there is insufficient understanding of factors that affect how frequently a vulnerability is likely to be rediscovered.
Equipping infosec professionals: That brings us back to our original question: are information security professionals have the right knowledge, tools and practices for making judgement calls when confronted with such complex ethical issues. Guidelines for computing ethics have existed for decades. For example IEEE Computer Society and ACM published a code of ethics for software engineers back in 1999. But to what extent do such codes reach practitioners and inform their work? There are certainly efforts in this direction. For example, program committees of top information security conferences routinely look for a discussion on “ethical considerations” in submitted research papers that deal with privacy-sensitive data or vulnerabilities in deployed products. They frequently grapple with the issues involved in requiring authors to reveal datasets in the interests of promoting reproducibility of research results while balancing considerations of people from whom the data was collected. But this needs to be done more systematically at all levels of the profession.
Ethical considerations in information security cannot be simply outsourced to philosophers and ethicists alone because such considerations will inevitably inform the very nature of the work done by information security professionals. For example, several researchers are developing techniques that allow privacy-preserving training and prediction mechanisms for systems based on machine learning. Similarly, as Matt Blaze pointed out, active research is needed to understand the dynamics of vulnerability rediscovery.
Should undergraduate computer science curricula need mandatory exposure to ethics in computing? Should computer science departments host computing ethicists among their ranks?
Silver lining: Coming back to the Vault 7 episode, there was indeed a silver lining. The focus on amassing weaponized vulnerabilities to attack end systems suggests that the increasing adoption of end-to-end encryption by a wide variety of messaging applications has indeed been successful! Passive wiretapping is likely to be much less effective today than it was only a few years ago.