How to Avoid Being a Shady Developer, Part 1: Ethical Terms Defined

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Clarifying the ethical aspects of your project is just as important as designing its nuts and bolts. In part one of this series, we’ll define some terms and start addressing the ethical components of your project. We’ll eventually use what we learn today in our privacy policies, user agreements, and most importantly, day-to-day decisions about how we interact with our users.

Whether you’re coding for a software program, marking up an HTML page, or even blogging, chances are that your creation will have some interaction with the outside world: your users. These users may not be as savvy as you are when it comes to making online choices. They may be providing you with sensitive information, trusting you to do the right thing. But no matter your users’ level of common sense online awareness, YOU are responsible for directing their use of your creation.

Making astute judgement calls for other folks is probably not exactly what you signed up for when you became a web dev goddess, but we all know that goddesses don’t get sued for ambiguous wording in their user agreements, and you don’t want to be the first one who does. That’s why you need a brief refresher course on ethics in computing. I know, there is plenty that requires your attention without thinking of the ethical side of things. But alas, it will eventually need to be done, and what better time to start your project’s “ethical checklist” than now, when you are clearly already fed up with your project for the time being, as evidenced by your reading this blog? Right, no better time. Let’s do this.

For our first foray into the world of ethics in computing, we need to know what’s what when it comes to user rights and privacy. Below is a handy list of terms, which we will use to nail down ethical concepts that seem to flit about like little ambiguous imps*:

Personal information – any information relating to an individual person. Duh, but sometimes it comes down to the technical definition of this before you’re really clear on how things should be handled.

Informed consent – users being aware of what information is collected and how it is used. Two common forms for providing informed consent are opt out and opt in.

Opt out – Person must request (usually by checking a box) that an organization not use information.

Opt in – The collector of the information may use information only if person explicitly permits use (usually by checking a box).

Invisible information gathering – collection of personal information about a user without the user’s knowledge.

Cookies – Files a website stores on a visitor’s computer.

Secondary use – Use of personal information for a purpose other than the purpose for which it was provided. Usually a huge no-no unless you are very clear about using it.

Data mining – Searching and analyzing masses of data to find patterns and develop new information or knowledge.

Computer matching – Combining and comparing information from different databases (using social security number, for example) to match records.

Computer profiling – Analyzing data to determine characteristics of people most likely to engage in a certain behavior.

In my next article, we’ll talk about the guidelines for using and managing the above ideas. For now, answer the following questions about your project:

  1. What kind of personal information might you (or do you) deal with?
  2. What measures are in place (if any) ensuring that your users are considered “informed” about the use of their information?

Don’t just give a fleeting thought to these answers and move on. Write them down and be ready to add ’em to the page. We need to spell out the details in order to be clearly, methodically ethical about our creations—lest we end up being shady developers!

  • “Little Ambiguous Imps” will be the name of my new band, let me know if you’d like to join.

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