Dark Underbellies

Every technology can be used for evil

Dark Underbellies

When I got a degree in Computer Science, they didn't require us to take a technology ethics course. There might not have even been a technology ethics course offered.

But the industry has learned about what happens when you graduate years and years of people that don't think about this truth:

Every technology has a dark underbelly.

If you build tech, and especially if you manage product, you have to get used to thinking in this way. Here are some examples to help:

  • Automatic motion-activated doors let wild animals into stores.
  • Social media increases bullying, which increases suicides - especially among young women.
  • Any technology that allows people to share photos will be used for pornography and the exploitation of women (and men) that this brings.
  • Any technology that shares location data will be used for physical assault.
  • Many technologies that save a lot of money create terrible, terrible jobs.

There are some simple techniques to help you build out this list for the product you are working on:

  • Think of this as threat modeling. If you are familiar with whitehat hacking principles, then activate this part of your brain and think of it as "how would someone weaponize our system" or how it could be socially hacked. Imagine that you have illegal transactions, data, or communication needs, could you use the free version of your system to accomplish those? At scale?
  • Now turn your attention inward. If the product team at your company was replaced by evil-twin versions of your current team, how could they create a dangerous business model that hurt people? How could they sell or use the current data as leverage?
  • Study past examples. Unfortunately, the very recent past is full of them. Facebook affecting elections and undermining democracy, Uber drivers sexually assaulting riders. Amazon workers living in RVs and popping Advil from the breakroom. Or core tech, like how taking photos until recently gave away your location.

If you build product, you must be aware of the dark underbelly if you want to avoid accidentally being unethical.