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Compromising Individual's Privacy with Unsafe Internet Surfing

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Am I actually exercising my freedom of choice when I check the box saying that “I have read and agree to the Terms and Conditions” without actually scanning through the terms and conditions? Or am I simply checking the box because I, like the 73% of people who confess to not reading all the fine print (according to the Guardian in 2014), realize that I have no other alternative if I wish to use Facebook or other social media sites? In 2012, two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University estimated that internet users would spend an average of 25 days per year reading privacy policies – which easily exceed 30,000 words in length, longer than the word count in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – if they indeed read every privacy policy for the websites they use. Given the effort required to wade through these overly lengthy contracts filled with legalese, and the fact that users have no other choice if they wish to use these services, it is unsurprising that so few people bother to read terms and conditions.

In software engineering, one of the most pressing questions concerns the tension between the power of Big Data and the reasonable expectation of privacy of Big Data’s users. For example, most Google users perform Google searches, watch YouTube videos, like Google + posts, and send emails through Gmail multiple times per day. Information specific to the user’s device, search query, and even location is then stored, analyzed, and used by Google. When I send emails asking friends whether or not they are interested in sharing a bulk order of coconut oil, advertisements for Tropical Traditions start popping up in my inbox sidebar. Is it ethical for companies like Google to access, store, and use my data in such a manner? The compromise tacitly agreed upon has typically been to shift the responsibility to users and their understanding of terms and conditions and other privacy policies – but is that truly honest? Do users truly believe that the benefits of tailored services like Google’s Adsense are worth the sacrifices of their personal privacy? In today’s increasingly digitized and interconnected age, living without services that necessitate sacrificing privacy is near impossible, leaving users with little choice but to surrender.

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The question of the right to privacy is not merely a philosophical one, but one every software engineer has a responsibility to answer. Although finding a clear-cut answer is about as easy as finding a unicorn in a forest, software engineers still need to understand that the work they pioneer today will result in massive, and often unforeseen, future consequences. A case in point is that of Edward Snowden who, when he leaked massive files of classified intelligence documents in June 2013, was simultaneously praised by some as a patriotic whistleblower and criticized by others as a dangerous spy. As an engineer and computer professional, what Snowden did correctly was adhering to his convictions. He realized that the work he was involved in violated fundamental American beliefs in government transparency and constitutional freedoms – and took action accordingly, even though doing so required massive sacrifice on his part.

Whether or not Snowden’s actions were in fact commendable is another debate, but every software engineer likewise faces the risk of compromising his/her personal ethical standards. For instance, what if engineers at the National Security Agency had refused to further collaborate on government programs like PRISM because they deemed the envisioned electronic surveillance unconstitutional? Conversely, other engineers designing national intelligence programs might have believed that the need for government surveillance outweighed concerns regarding freedom and privacy, leaving the U.S. government with the powerful tools it uses today. Figuring out who designed PRISM and other programs lies in the realm of conjecture, but the point remains clear – in today’s world, users hold less and less say regarding their privacy, and it may be up to the software engineers themselves to hold companies and governments accountable to an ethical standard. Requiring users to decipher terms and conditions is no longer an adequate excuse; rather, before embarking on any project, software engineers owe it to society to reflect upon the potential ethical impacts of their work and act in accordance with their convictions.

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