Technologists are creating increasingly more sophisticated digital technologies capable of monitoring us.
The most mature technology is that of RFID tags.Now as small as grains of rice, RFID tags typically track the location and movement of items through an assembly line, warehouse, store, or library. The tags can also be attached to personal possessions such as clothing, passports, or cash. RFID tags can be and are implanted in animals in order to track them in the wild. This is not now done to humans, although people may be carrying items with RFIDs and be tracked without realizing it.
Other location tracking uses the Global Positioning System(GPS) of satellites. It allows mobile devices to know where on earth they are located, and also allows location tracking on those devices, and hence to monitor the whereabouts of a person carrying the phone. A chilling example of this occurred in a political protest in Ukraine in January 2014, when individuals who were in the barricaded city centre of Kiev received text messages saying ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’.
Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.
The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics. I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019). We meet twice a week for 75 minutes. In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view. Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas. There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper. Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.
In a previous blog, I spoke about outsourcing, and the trade-offs for both companies and consumers, given the practise of many companies to outsource customer support globally. Here I shall speak about a related issue — the current tendency of most companies to skimp on or omit human customer support altogether. I shall illustrate this by describing three hours I spent yesterday and today trying to find a nearby store that had a USB-C to VGA converter for my Mac laptop.