Tech Ethics and the “Big Ask”

Recently I saw a Twitter thread asking the software testing community for volunteers to work on the SafePaths “contact tracing” app being developed by MIT. This project is made of up ex-Facebook execs, companies with questionable ethical pasts, and vague statements like “a number of leaders and personnel” and “experts from government agencies”. I’m sorry but that isn’t even remotely good enough for a project of this depth and scale.  

Having read the research on the website and associated whitepapers, I feel there is insufficient public evidence of any discussion regarding the ethics of this project. The tech community keeps repeating the same mistakes regarding our responsibility to create ethical platforms – this is an opportunity to do better. Comments from MITs Ramesh Raskar are at once incredibly vague and disturbing regarding what “public” health officials and government agencies can “decide” to do with your data. I encourage you to watch this interview he gave on PBS News Hour.

I understand the need for contact tracing to control the spread of pandemics, but I would need to see evidence of serious, in depth public discussions regarding the ethics of this project – including specifically which government agencies, private entities, and corporations are involved before I volunteered my time. I would also take into consideration the software testing companies already involved in this project (PractiTest, Applause, AppQuality) and what ethical concerns they raised prior to their engagement.

To be clear, I am NOT advocating against an app for contact tracing, but the scale of this project and lack of public information on the entities involved should give pause for thought. Technologists have a long history of jumping into problems before we’ve asked vital questions regarding ethics, and if we’ve learned nothing from our past failures, we should be getting answers BEFORE we start rushing to solutions.

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