This post originally appeared on Rackspace Solve.
Ethics in technology isn’t a new concept, but it has been gaining a lot of recent attention. On any given day, there is story after story of some hack, password breach, or worse. Stories like the Cambridge Analytica abuse of Facebook data, Volkswagen building their cars to cheat emissions tests, Facebook collecting, well, everything, and earlier this summer after the beta release of iOS 14 at Apple’s WWDC in June, users saw which apps were “snooping” on their clipboards (and how often). These are just a few of the biggest stories from the past few years. It’s almost impossible to remember them all.
Building Products and Features
Are all of these hacks, leaks and revelations due to some bad actor or negligence? Not entirely. Most probably, these products were all built with good intentions. When building products and features, product managers — like myself —are trying to accomplish one goal: solve a problem for a user. In solving these problems, we want to ensure that we are providing a good experience for our users.
How can any of the above examples be used to create a good experience? Let’s take a look at Apple’s clipboard snooping example. What valid reason is there for an app to see what was copied to your clipboard? Let’s suppose you’ve ordered something online and received a shipping notice in your email with a tracking number. You copy it and open up the mobile app for that shipper. The app can scan your clipboard quickly and see if the contents match a certain tracking format – if it does, it can either ask you if you want to track the package manually or track it automatically. This can and should all be done at the device level, without ever needing to send the clipboard contents to a server somewhere for analysis. The app is removing friction for a user and making use of the app easier.
On the flip side, the app may have been designed to scan your clipboard and send its contents back to a server that stores that info in your user profile that was created without your knowledge, for use as the app manufacturer sees fit. Or it could even be sold to other companies.
With any feature that can be built into a product, product managers need to ask, “How can this be misused?”
This is where the concept of tech ethics comes into play. With any feature that can be built into a product, product managers need to ask, “How can this be misused?” Can features in a dating app be misused to enable abuse or stalking? Can personal information be accessed and used to dox a user? Can your product be used to spread misinformation?
While product managers are the voice of the customer, they need to think like an agent of chaos – a person who can find flaws or bugs in things and find ways to cause harm or commit crimes by exploiting them.