During a recent talk to computer science students and faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla., I closed with thoughts about ethics for people who create software. The inclusion of "backdoors" into a Web browser, the capability to track people who use cellphones, and the use of facial-recognition programs raise ethical issues. How much intrusion should consumers put up with, and what are the ethical responsibilities of the people who create these applications?
During the question-and-answer session, several people asked me how much intrusion I will put up with. I answered, "Not much." I refuse to show a photo ID when I make an in-person credit card purchase, I have no Facebook page, I rarely use "affinity" cards in stores, and my driver's license uses an ID number instead of my Social Security number. My family and I take other privacy measures, too.
In some situations, though, we cannot try to protect our privacy until we know someone has violated it. Suppose you slip and fall on spilled liquid in a grocery store and must sue the store chain to recover damages. Because you use an affinity card to get discounts, the store knows how much beer and wine you purchase, and threatens to reveal the quantities and dates at trial. Perhaps then the jury will think you had too much to drink and lost your balance. You thought your records of purchases remained private, and the store never told you otherwise.
I have heard stories about insurance companies investigating food purchases to determine the type of diet an applicant follows and whether that diet includes a lot of fatty or high-calorie food. So you might get denied life insurance because your grocery purchases reveal an "unhealthy" lifestyle. The software doesn't know you buy two dozen donuts each Saturday for your kid's soccer team.
The process of gathering information about you and then using it for a purpose unknown to you raises ethical issues for the people who create such systems. Thus, programmers and software designers must revisit the ethics of their profession and consider them carefully.