Social Issues in Computing and the Internet

Vinton G. Cerf, Vice-President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google Inc.

Forty years ago, C.C. (“Kelly”) Gotlieb and Allan Borodin wrote about Social Issues in Computing. We can thank them for their insights so many years ago and can see now how computing and communication have combined to produce benefits and hazards for the 2.5 billion people who are thought to be directly using the Internet. To these we may add many who use mobile applications that rely on access to Internet resources to function. And to these we may add billions more who are affected by the operation of network-based systems for all manner of products, services and transactions that influence the pulse of daily life.

Not only are we confronted with cyber-attacks, malware, viruses, worms and Trojan Horses, but we are also affected by our own social behavior patterns that lead to reduced privacy and even unexpected invasion of privacy owing to the inadvertent acts of others. Photo sharing is very common in the Internet today, partly owing to the fact that every mobile seems to have an increasingly high-resolution camera and the ability to upload these images to any web site or sent to any email address. What the photos contain, however, may include people we don’t know who just happened to be caught in the photo. When these photos have time, date and location information (often supplied by the mobile itself!), the involuntary participants in the image may find that their privacy has been eroded. Maybe they were not supposed to be there at the time…. Others “surfing” the Internet may find and label these photos correctly or incorrectly. In either case, one can easily construct scenarios in which these images are problematic.

One imagines that social mores and norms will eventually emerge for how we would prefer that these technologies be used in society. For example, it is widely thought that banning mobile phone calls in restaurants and theatres is appropriate for the benefit of other patrons. We will probably have to experience a variety of situations, some of them awkward and even damaging, before we can settle on norms that are widely and possibly internationally accepted.

While the technical community struggles to develop reliable access control, authentication and cryptographic methods to aid in privacy protection, others work to secure operating systems and browsers through which many useful services are constructed and, sadly, also attacked. We are far from having a reliable theory of resilient, attack-resistant operating system, browsers and other applications, let along practices that are effective.

We have ourselves to blame for some of this. We use poorly constructed passwords, we give up privacy in exchange for convenience (think of the record of your purchases that the credit card company/bank accumulates in the course of a year). We revel in sharing information with others, without necessarily attending to the potential side-effects to ourselves or our associates. Identify theft is a big business because we reveal so much that others can pretend to be us! Of course, negligence results in the exposure of large quantities of personally identifiable information (e.g. lost laptops and memory sticks).

This problem will only become more complex as the “Internet of Things” arrives in the form of computer-controlled appliances that are also networked. Unauthorized third parties may gain access to and control over these devices or may be able to tap them for information that allows them to track your habits and know whether you are at home or your car is unoccupied.

The foresight shown by Gotlieb and Borodin so many years ago reinforces my expectation that we must re-visit these issues in depth and at length if we are to fashion the kind of world we really wish to live in. That these ideas must somehow take root in many countries and cultures and be somehow compatible only adds to the challenge.

Vinton G. Cerf is VP and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google; President of the ACM; member of the US National Science Board; US National Medal of Technology; Presidential Medal of Freedom; ACM A. M. Turing Award; Japan Prize; former chairman of ICANN and President of the Internet Society.


One comment

  1. Ron

    It speaks volumes that this post was written by Vinton; clearly ‘Social Issues in Computing’ was an insightful piece of work.