#SecTorCa: Tech for Good, and Bad

According to Tracy Ann Kosa, staff privacy engineer at Google, all technology comes with both promises and un-intended consequences.

Kosa detailed the challenges and opportunities that technology can bring to society at large during a keynote session at the virtual SecTor security conference. She added that the notion that technology always helps to improve human life is slowly beginning to fade away.

“Social media was supposed to bring us all together and it definitely has, but we see positive and negative consequences of that,” she said.

Where Tech Excels and Where it Fails

Kosa noted that computers are exceptionally good at well-defined tasks with accurately and well-labeled data. Technology is also powerful for image recognition at a level that, in some cases, surpasses human abilities, but there are limitations.

In her view, computing systems still struggle with the physical world and lack common sense. When it comes to machine learning and automation, there are some particular risks as systems that are based on data that lacks diversity, both in terms of source and participation, lead to inaccurate outcomes.

 

Whenever a new technology is introduced, there is a cycle of panic that tends to follow, Kosa said. For example, she noted that there was a significant decline in youth mental health in the United States in 2010 that was rather compellingly blamed on smartphone usage.

“That kind of panic becomes a widespread popular moral panic, and we see questions such as: what does it mean to be human and how is this technology changing that for humanity?” she said.

What tends to follow the initial moral panic are politicians that will issue public declarations against a certain emerging technology. The next phase in the cycle of panic is some form of reinvention where the issues that caused the panic are somehow addressed. In some cases, no real progress happens and the panic about the technology continues.

Technology Ethics

Kosa said that there are increasing calls today to have ethics integrated into technology services so they can be more beneficial to human society.

“What does that mean, do we want our engineers to become philosophers, or do we want our philosophers to become engineers?” Kosa asked.

In answering her own question, Kosa emphasized that individuals make ethical decisions all the time and most people don’t need special training to become ethical. That said, for software developers and technology engineers, it can be useful to have a framework within which to consider the ethical implications of a given technology.

One such approach to considering the impact of technology is the reasonable person test that emerged out of a Supreme Court decision in Canada. Kasa explained that the reasonable person model for technology ethics is to consider how an average layperson expects technology to work and what kind of information is required by the service in order to work as expected.

Technology for Good

While much of Kasa’s keynote addressed the negative impacts of technology, she was careful to also note that technology has many positive impacts as well. Contact tracing efforts, which are critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, are one such example of helpful technology she cited.

Kasa also noted that financial services technology has been a major benefit for good in recent years, with online mortgage platforms helping to enable more people from diverse communities to get a loan and own a home.

“Reducing and, in some cases, removing entirely human brokers from the mortgage underwriting process does in fact seem to be democratizing the industry,” she said.

There is more that can be done to enable technology for good and to that end Kasa concluded her keynote with a call to action for developers and technology builders. Every time there is a new release of software, service or hardware, she wants there to be a consideration about three key questions: who is in the story, who is not in the story and who benefits?

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