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What are the ethics of physical computing? Let’s look at some scenarios.
Baby monitor device with camera

Human decisions are made throughout the creation of physical computing systems. And when human decisions are made, we need to consider the ethics and implications of these decisions.

Let’s consider a smartwatch that measures the number of steps you take. Think about this dilemma. If a smartwatch is overestimating the number of steps you have taken, should the software company inform you? It certainly wouldn’t be good for sales to say, “This watch is wrong 20% of the time”. However, would it be ethically right to do so, particularly if I’m relying on this watch for my physical health and the data I’m getting back is wrong? Where is this written? Are there any rules in the small print in the terms and conditions of sale, or in the user manual for the watch itself?

If you install traffic lights near a care home, should they stay green for longer to allow people with mobility problems to cross the road safely? What about next to a school? How close should the traffic lights be to a school? How long do traffic lights take? Should all traffic lights take longer to change to suit all mobility needs? Who makes these decisions?

Example: Raspberry Pi Parent Detector

Let’s take one of the examples we’ve looked at so far and consider the implications of it: the Raspberry Pi Parent Detector. The project is to set up a sensor that detects movement in a child’s bedroom. When the sensor detects movement the camera starts recording. On the surface this seems like a fun harmless project. But what is it doing? Let’s look a bit deeper with ethics in mind.

  1. It’s encouraging children to spy on their parents.
  2. It’s implying that parents have no right to access their children’s bedroom.
  3. Most worryingly: it’s recording a video onto an internet connected device in a child’s bedroom.

There are so many questions that arise from this project:

  • There is no mention of permissions. Do they have permission to film people?
  • Do the people entering the room know they are being filmed? The project implies that they don’t and this is all done in secret.
  • What happens to the footage?
  • This project is for children but there are no guidelines offered beforehand, no advice on gaining permission, or on when they should and shouldn’t share digital content.
  • There is also no advice on how to secure the Raspberry Pi. All Raspberry Pis come with a default username and password:
    Username: pi
    Password: raspberry
    The device recommends you change it but doesn’t force you.
  • Anyone connected to your Wi-Fi can access your Raspberry Pi and the videos on it. If a child were to leave the camera on while getting dressed, any member of the household would have access to that video. How secure is your Wi-Fi? Is it also using the default username and password? Can anyone within reach of your Wi-Fi login? This project effectively connects an unsecured internet device to a child’s bedroom.

What seemed like a fun and challenging project is now a very worrying problem.

Ethical decisions

Who’s fault is it when physical computing goes wrong? The company supplying the technology? The child? The parent? The Wi-Fi provider? Whose responsibility is it? When it comes to physical computing who makes the decisions? What qualifications should they have to make these decisions? Are the decisions being made at all?

Often, these decisions are not made by governments or schools or the people who are affected by the outcomes. Modern technology is becoming more complicated and is being used in vastly different scenarios. It can be hard to envision the final use when building the low-level hardware or software tools, e.g. the engineer designing an audio chip might not consider it being used as an eavesdropping device.

We are seeing ethics appear more and more in university degrees as a compulsory part of their learning. At Lancaster University, students study modules on Social, Ethical and Professional Issues in Computing in the second year of the Computer Science degree. Ethics can be an emotional topic. Some people think we’re not doing enough to consider the implications of physical computing. Some people think that there are no implications, that we’re just being paranoid and common sense should prevail. But what do you think?

Over to you

In the scenario above, do you think the project should be changed to include guides on:
  • asking someone’s permission before you take their photograph or film them
  • asking someone’s permission before sharing their photograph or film on social media
  • how to secure their Raspberry Pi and/or wifi network?
Or do you think all this is implied? Who do you think the guides should be written for? The child or the parent?
Share your thoughts with other learners in the Comments section.
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Introduction to Physical Computing

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