Friday, April 06, 2018

Idealism and Computer Science

Idealism is a good thing. Well, mostly it is. This morning I heard Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg say that Facebook was too idealistic about somethings and that lead to the current Cambridge Analytica scandal. In another interview she said that Facebook was told by Cambridge Analytica that they had deleted their data which turned out not to be true. But Facebook trusted them.

When people have good intentions they tend to assume that others also have good intentions. The very early computers and Internet had very little in the way of security. Most people had only good intentions and assumed that everyone else had them as well. Why secure things if you are sure that no one will misuse them?

One of the things I learned early in my career is that any program of any size and complexity can be used in ways that the people who created it never intended. We’d all like to assume that no one would using things in bad ways. Alas, this is not the case.

These days we teach a lot about being safe with computers and protecting data. It’s a complex problem and one that I think students don’t always absorb as well as they should. Idealism is strong in the young even though there is evidence of people acting badly all around them.

Many of us get into the field of computing as a way to make the world a better place. Facebook wants to connect everyone in the world to build community. Google wants to index all the world’s information to make it accessible and available for everyone to learn.  Most companies at their core have some ideal of “good” as their mission. This is especially true of many companies, like Google and Facebook, that are founded by young idealistic people.

Somehow we have to get people to understand that there are people who will misuse data and we have to find ways to minimize the negative aspects while enabling the positive. And we need to start with the young so that they can continue their idealism and ideals and at the same time protect the people they are trying to help.

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