Privacy vs. Security: Engineering Ethics IRL

As a veteran (former naval officer) this clip for Battlestar Galactica has always hit me in the gut. It’s not that Adama didn’t want to help, rather he knew that in the long-term it would not be a good idea to let the military fulfill a civilian policing function.

This clip, in my humble mind, helps to illustrate the eternal struggle between safety (and privacy) and security. Another is a quote attributed to Ben Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Though the original context is lost on many (Franklin was advocating for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to not give up the right to tax the Penn family in lieu of taking a one-time lump sum payment to fund wilderness territory security), the quote still rings true in the modern debate of security vs. privacy.

A recent article from The Verge “Google, like Amazon, may let police see your video without a warrant” by Mitchell Clark, illustrates a terrifying trend of our willingness to sacrifice privacy for security.

I was already serving in the US Navy when September 11, 2001, occurred. A tragedy, no doubt. But in the twenty-plus years since, with the explosion of the Internet, smartphones, and the Internet of Things (IoT an equally tragic journey has been taken willingly by many. Smartphones and the IoT (think webcams, smart doorbells, remote-controlled wall outlets, etc.) have made our lives simpler and more efficient in many ways.

But as Mr. Clark points out in his article, the government (specifically law enforcement)sees technology as not a tool to protect us but rather a weapon to bludgeon our civil liberties. The shift to authoritarian police states is not something that occurs overnight. And with the exception of banana republics, the shift is done willingly though unknowingly by the populace. Typically in the name of safety and security over our rights to liberty and privacy. It’s a slippery slope. Smartphones, social media, and the IoT are just the latest technologies that law enforcement blames for their inability to do their job. But the bigger issue remains. Thankfully companies like Apple and Wyze are fighting back, while the Amazons and Googles seem to be complicit in the exchange of liberty for security.

As an engineer, I feel like our profession has to get back to a discussion of engineering ethics. Just as doctors swear to do no harm to the individual, engineers and software developers can do incalculable more harm to the entire planet with the technologies we invent. We must be careful to ensure that we build technology with safeguards from the police state. End-to-end encryption, auditable source code, enforcing police get warrants/subpoenas from the courts, etc. are crucial things technology companies can do to ensure the Great American experiment continues far into the future.

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Photo by Matheus Bertelli: https://www.pexels.com/photo/modern-video-camera-hanging-on-display-of-laptop-7172701/

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