Students and professor discuss ethics surrounding high-tech ethics

Students and professor discuss ethics surrounding high-tech ethics

Photo Credits: DANIELLE MOFFAT / AGGIE

Computer science ethics professor, students share opinions on tech ethics

Ethics are intertwined with practically all disciplines but recently are discussed increasingly in the context of technology. Updates on the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal continue to be published and discussed at length, along with calls for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to step down. The HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” which investigates the fraud at Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes, will release on March 18. Despite controversy at other companies such as Microsoft, the epicenter of such ethical scandal seems to be Silicon Valley — a renowned hub of STEM activity. Of undergraduates at UC Davis, over 56 percent major in STEM, and students aspire to work in Silicon Valley.

“There are many companies that I and other students would consider ideal workplaces, such as Google, Apple or Amazon,” said Christopher White, a first-year computer science major, who hopes to get a software engineering job in the Bay Area after graduating. “This is mostly due to pay, benefits, public reputation of the company and the enjoyment from working at these places.”

Employees in the tech industry, according to a New York Times article that discussed Microsoft’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are increasingly mobilizing against their companies’ actions. The article also mentions the letter signed by Google employees protesting Google’s involvement with the Pentagon regarding an artificial intelligence and weaponry program.

A professor in the department of computer science, Phillip Rogaway, referenced the Google employees’ letter when discussing the role of employees in holding their companies accountable. He still believes, however, that employees need to push back against unethical situations.

“Employees in the companies […] need to push back strongly against their employers’ decisions in many instances, to become whistleblowers or to obstruct management wishes,” Rogaway said. “You’ve seen a little bit of it with Google employees pushing back against [Department of Defense] ties […] It doesn’t happen much.”

Rogaway is a professor for ECS 188: Ethics in an Age of Technology, a class that he has made an effort to change significantly since 2004. The course was initially offered as a way to “reluctantly” satisfy the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requirement of having an ethics class for the computer science and engineering (CSE) major.

“I was interested in the ethics of our outgoing computer science students and wanted to check out how we were doing with that class,” Rogaway said. “[I] was very disappointed by what a weak class it was — how narrow in focus, how unchallenging to the students and how little I imagined that it would make a difference in their behaviors.”

It appears, however, that Rogaway has been successful in his attempts to reinvent the class. Since ECS 188 is an upper division course, White hasn’t had the opportunity to take it yet, but he hopes to, in part because he has heard people talking about it being one of their favorite classes. Rogaway says that in some ways, he is “most proud” of that class.

“[ECS 188] is the one that I think really has the best chance of changing students’ trajectories and getting them to be more thoughtful in their professional and personal choices,” Rogaway said. “And it’s the class that students come up to me years later and say, ‘Your class was important to me.’ […] Would the theory of computation change their life? But the ethics class seems to do that routinely.”

Rogaway thinks users of technology should stop being mindless consumers. According to him, remedies for this include turning gadgets off and not using them, yet he acknowledges that it is easier said than done. In his ECS 188 classes, he asks students to give up their phones for a week and says that he is lucky to get a couple students in a 24-student class to turn in their phones — and usually they do so because they are able to use their emails and messaging services on their laptops.    

In addition to users, Rogaway believes that the government should hold tech companies more accountable and that it should “go in and strongly regulate” these companies. Despite increased publicity recently, he doesn’t think that corporations are really changing all that much.

“I don’t think the recent publicity has changed the nature of the beast,” Rogaway said. “We have lots of corporations that are doing their very best to enrich themselves, their shareholders [and] their top management, and they create a kind of ludicrous fiction that they’re doing it all in the public interest. And there’s this myth that Silicon Valley is out there to create a new and wonderful world for us all, when of course, they’re primarily about making money.”

Alyssa Buchthal, a third-year computer science and communication double major, plans to do some “soul searching” and then find a job as a software engineer or project manager or do government work within the tech realm. She said that the job-searching process isn’t really affected by scandals that are seen in the news and that young techies consider “ideal” workplaces to be big name companies regardless — particularly because those workplaces generally offer well-paying jobs, are flexible and have additional “little things,” such as free food and drinks in the office.

“The difference in levels between Mark Zuckerberg and a recent Facebook hire is equivalent to people trying to make eye contact across an ocean,” Buchthal said. “When someone tells you they work at Facebook, you don’t automatically equate them with the FBI guy in your computer watching you all the time, or someone tracking your data and using it for illicit means. […] People in tech have a moral compass, but they also have a drive to feed themselves and have job security, and that is more likely to be found at bigger name tech firms than smaller start-ups or ailing companies.”

Rogaway has a different opinion, though. In past years, he was disappointed when he asked his students about their employment goals and would hear exclusively about their self-interests. Rogaway says it is “absurd” to discard one’s own interest, but it is at least as absurd to discard the social value of the work one is doing. He says that it is “a sad view of the human condition.”

“Social science research says that one of the best predictors of how happy an individual is is how much they feel they’re contributing socially,” Rogaway said. “I think if students internalized that that’s what matters — feeling good about your work and doing something positive and not maximizing your paycheck and benefits — then we’d have a lot more [of them] steering themselves in good directions. So tell them not to be so fearful, they’ll get a job.”

Fear is something Rogaway sees in his students a lot. According to Rogaway, for the most part, most of these students grew up in a time of domestic peace, historically low crime and high employment, so he finds it strange to see this fear. He is unsure what the cause is, but thinks that it could be attributed to the economic downturn that many students witnessed as children or even a broader cultural trend. In his opinion, fear is what causes “amoral, unquestioning behavior.” He says that if someone believes saying no to an interview at a particular company will leave them “destitute on the streets,” then that is definitely a hard “no” to utter. However, not taking that interview does not mean that the person won’t find another job.

Buchthal recognizes that the ethical problems are of high importance but thinks that at the employment level, a lot of people are focused on paying the bills and keeping their jobs.

“As someone who isn’t in the workforce, I’m also not imminently qualified to answer a lot of these questions for those people,” Buchthal said. “But I can speculate on the paths I’ve seen recent graduates take and how I know most people consider their future.”

Buchthal thinks that despite companies being in hot water, there seems to be a low chance of such companies actually closing, and students seem to keep this in mind when looking for jobs after graduation.

“The biggest thing[s] students need to consider when entering jobs like these is their personal moral compass and job security,” Buchthal said. “Most students won’t completely boycott a company like Facebook or Peoplesoft because of the scandals they’re facing in the media, but if you choose to do so, you can apply elsewhere and exclude those places from your job search. They won’t miss you. Otherwise, ensuring that you’ll have a job a few years down the line is equally important.”

Despite what Rogaway says about students being too fearful, to some extent, he does think that it makes sense, particularly with regards to employees who don’t want to speak against their company.

“Most employees are fearful that if they become vocal within their company, they’re likely to get fired or marginalized,” Rogaway said. “And I think that fear is valid. That’s probably exactly what happens to people who speak up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not supposed to do it. We need to encourage a more assertive and questioning and oppositional sentiment in our technical workforce.”

Written by: Anjini Venugopal — features@theaggie.org