It’s not exactly a surprise to most people when the news comes out that many organisations, particularly governments, have been doing shady shit regarding technology. Creating drones with an increasing level of autonomy to decide for themselves who gets to live and who gets a missile to the face. Intercepting internet traffic from everyday, law-abiding citizens to find any criminals in the worlds most enormous haystack. Facial recognition vans being used by the police without a specific target in mind, just monitoring everyone.
There are many reasons to be concerned about this state of affairs for those of us who value our privacy and have a healthy mistrust of authority. It’s no surprise then that when large tech companies win military contracts, such as Microsoft announcing they will build high tech hololens-style headsets for the US Army, their engineers revolted and demanded they drop the contract. If I were an engineer at a tech company, who joined to work on exciting problems to make the world better, I would be pissed to discover my bosses actually want me to build things to help kill people. This dilemma comes up rather often. Big tech companies tend to have the most resources and talented engineers around, and it’s not shocking that governments have all kinds of problems they’d like to solve with technology.
The question is, if we care so much about the use and misuse of potentially dangerous technology in society, do we have an obligation to engage with the process of creating it? On the one hand, refusing to work with or for organisations that do work you find objectionable as an engineer seems to be a pretty standard position. If you don’t want to build weapons technology, don’t work for a company with contracts to build them, right? On the other hand, has that made any significant change to the way these technologies are used? Would it not be more effective to get involved in those organisations and change the direction from within? Decisions are made by those who show up after all.
For sure, there’s no shortage of questionable or blatantly unethical uses of technology all around us, so clearly, the technology is still being built and deployed. Maybe the refusal of ethical engineers to work on these systems is actually causing more problems by ensuring that only unethical engineers are creating them instead.
I suppose this all relies upon the assumption that the employees within these organisations could influence the things they build. Perhaps if development teams for a project refused to create what they consider unethical technology, such as surveillance systems, they might be able to make a change. Or they might be fired, who knows. In one respect, it may be like asking whether police officers can impact what laws are passed. If the entire police force collectively refused to enforce a given law, then what would happen? I don’t know.
Either way, it’s a problem that I’ve been pondering for a while. I also think it’s necessary to ask the question because there are many unethical applications of technology. If those of us who have the knowledge to help produce such systems don’t take our role seriously, then we’re all pretty much screwed.