por: Kaveh Waddell
Technology is evolving faster than the legal and moral frameworks needed to manage it.
In October, when malware called Mirai took over poorly secured webcams and DVRs, and used them to disrupt internet access across the United States, I wondered who was responsible. Not who actually coded the malware, or who unleashed it on an essential piece of the internet’s infrastructure—instead, I wanted to know if anybody could be held legally responsible. Could the unsecure devices’ manufacturers be liable for the damage their products?
Right now, in this early stage of connected devices’ slow invasion into our daily lives, there’s no clear answer to that question. That’s because there’s no real legal framework that would hold manufacturers responsible for critical failures that harm others. As is often the case, the technology has developed far faster than policies and regulations.
But it’s not just the legal system that’s out of touch with the new, connected reality. The Internet of Things, as it’s called, is also lacking a critical ethical framework, argues Francine Berman, a computer-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a longtime expert on computer infrastructure. Together with Vint Cerf, an engineer considered one of the fathers of the internet, Berman wrote an article in the journal Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery about the need for an ethical system.
I spoke to her about ethical design, and how to balance individual privacy with the potential for social good of connected devices that share data with one another. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for concision and clarity, follows.
Kaveh Waddell: Why is it particularly important to think about ethics in the Internet of Things?
Francine Berman: I think we’ve been running up against these issues as digital technologies become more and more prevalent—but the Internet of Things is particularly interesting.