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Drone News Network: Oct. 31, 2014 October 31, 2014

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Happy halloween! Here is the latest spooky drone news:

Health testing at work October 30, 2014

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The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing Honeywell over the company’s medical testing program. The company has instituted a policy of general health and blood tests for employees as a part of their employee wellness program. The Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) encourages employers to create wellness plans in order to promote good health and cut insurance costs.

However, the EEOC take the view that such programs can go too far if they become punitive. It seems that Honeywell’s program may fit this description:

The EEOC said that ­Honeywell’s new program creates up to $4,000 in penalties for employees unless they and their spouses take blood and medical tests that can identify smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other health problems. They include the loss of $1,500 in company contributions to health ­savings accounts, a $500 medical plan surcharge, a $1,000 tobacco surcharge and a $1,000 ­spousal tobacco surcharge.

“Sure, you are free to decline to take the test, in which case we will whack you with this stick.”

Also at stake is the company’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act (GINA). Two employees of the company have filed complaints under these articles of legislation. It is certainly possible that the testing Honeywell requires could reveal facts about an employee’s health status that would not normally be considered work related:

“The thing that is important about these cases is not that they are wellness or health programs, but that the company is requiring testing and asking disability questions when it’s not job-related,” Vasichek [an EEOC attorney] said. “They can only do that in ­situations where it’s ­voluntary for the employee to answer.”

Honeywell makes three arguments in favor of its plan. The first is that it is consistent with Obamacare. The second is that the program has produced positive results, seeing an overall improvement in employee health. The third is that it would be unfair to penalize healthy employees through support for unhealthy ones:

“Honeywell wants its employees to be well-informed about their health status,” a company spokesman said. “We don’t believe that those employees who do work to lead healthier lifestyles should subsidize health-care premium for those who don’t,” he added.

This issue reflects the general problem of how to pool people for insurance coverage. In any insurance scheme, people who are healthy will subsidize care for those in the same pool who are ill. In public insurance, subsidization is regarded as a legitimate aim of policy, just a support that a civilized society offers to its members.

However, private companies like Honeywell are not societies in the same sense. Nevertheless, the argument Honeywell makes could lead to trouble: It would not be fair for the company to fire employees the moment they become ill for whatever reason. So, some compromise must be struck between the legitimate interests of the company to make a profit and of the employees to privacy and job security.

Honesty in the kitchen October 29, 2014

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A little piece in Slate describes a new induction stove top from Samsung. As with all induction cookers, the unit uses the resistance in metal pots and pans to create the heat needed for cooking.

However, one feature sets the new stove stop apart: It has “virtual flame technology”. That is, blue LEDs are used to create the illusion of flames of the type that might be seen in a gas stove top. Behold!

The pont of the virtual flame is apparently to allow users to judge how hot the unit is. This datum is easily judged from a gas flame but not with an induction unit.

However, imitation of a gas flame means that the design is dishonest, in other words, it appears to be something that it is not. And there are alternatives, such as a digital temperature readout, a gauge with an indicator that changes with temperature, or a dot that glows redder as temperature climbs.

Is the virtual flame a good design, or is it a gimmick?

Big data and privacy October 28, 2014

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The ACM Communications has a nice little article reviewing two common models of privacy and problems posed for them by the emergence of “big data”. Basically, the conclusion is that both models of privacy are fatally flawed in the face of ubiquitous data aggregation and data correlation.

The first model of privacy is informed consent. The idea is that people enjoy privacy when they are informed about how information about them is to be used and can effectively consent or not consent to it. This approach is reflected in the privacy policies that people sign off on, usually without reading them, when subscribing to a new online service. The authors point to two problems with this approach:

  1. Information about you may come from sources of which you have no knowledge and over which you have no control. Think of the “Gaydar” student project at MIT in 2009, in which students created a simple program that could infer the sexual orientation of Facebook users from those in their network of Friends. Consent matters only where control is possible.
  2. Another problem concerns unanticipated uses of personal data. It is simply not possible to foresee and consent (or not) to every possible result of releasing personal data. Consider the fate of Montreal school teacher Jacqueline Laurent-Auger who was recently fired when students in her class discovered erotic movies featuring her made 50 years earlier. How could the young Laurent-Auger possibly have anticipated these films would one day be digitized and indexed in a universal database?

In an era where any two pieces of information can be located, fetched and compared, how can a person exercise informed consent?

The second model of privacy is anonymity. A data set about a given person can be altered by the removal of personally identifying information so that further analysis cannot be tied back to the source. The problem is that what counts as personally identifying information depends on the ability of analysts to aggregate and correlate information about people. As data access and computing power increase, the ability to identify individuals from aggregate data increases rapidly. A recent example would be the database of New York City cab rides for 2013 released by the City on a Freedom of Information Request. The City anonymized the data by removing identifying information such as license numbers. However, a clever hacker was able to use data about the City’s taxi system gleaned from other sources to identify the riders, their trips, and what they paid. In particular, people became very interested in where celebrities went and what tips they left, if any.

Basically, information that identifies you with data about you is often out there in a diffused form that is difficult to protect from big data techniques.

The authors draw the reasonable conclusion that neither informed consent nor anonymity are sufficient to protect privacy. Instead, they look to biomedical studies for a model. In the case of biomedical research, at least at public institutions, studies on human subjects must pass the scrutiny of a panel of experts who act as advocates for the subjects and ensure that studies are designed to observe principles of beneficence and justice. Perhaps it is time to extend this model further afield.

Indeed, many governments have taken steps in this direction. The Canadian government, for example, employs a Privacy Commissioner who acts as a privacy advocate. Yet, it will take the actions of more than one government office to address the systemic problem described above. What more could be done?

Selfie esteem October 27, 2014

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People with smart phones still love to see themselves. Is that always a good thing?

The push and pull of acceptable selfies continues!

Drone News Network: Oct. 24, 2014 October 24, 2014

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Have you been hearing a faint buzzing in your ear? You may have tinnitus or you have a drone hovering nearby.

So, whether it is recording, racing, crashing into each other, delivering, or targeting, we have to figure out what it is we want drones to do.

Why did women exit computing? October 22, 2014

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NPR has an interesting article discussion the problem of why women began avoiding computer science in the mid-1980s. Until 1984, women were catching up to men in terms of the enrollment in computer science programs. Since then, however, the enrollment of women as a percentage of total enrollment has steadily declined. The trend certainly applies to the University of Waterloo:

Female enrolment there [in Computer Science] reached its peak in the late 1980s, at 33 per cent. Since then it’s been sliding. In fall 2010, women accounted for just 12.5 per cent of enrolment in computer science at Waterloo.

This gender disparity does not occur in many other parts of the world, so what gives here?

One factor that may have influenced the decline of women was the advent of the personal computer or, more precisely, the tendency of families to purchase them for boys and not girls. By the mid-1980s, many boys arrived in computer science programs with years of hobby experience which their female classmates tended not to have. Professors began to assume such a level of acquaintance, thus leaving their female students behind.

To examine this claim (albeit anecdotally), it is interesting to look back at home computer advertising at the time. Here are some ads from that period. See what you think of how males and females are portrayed in them, especially as to how they relate to the computer.

OK. Being a big Star Trek fan, I have to start with Captain Kirk:

It’s not just a game machine, although you sure can play games on it! All male.

Here is Radio Shack’s Color Computer:

Well, sis does get to watch her brother use the computer!

Now, here is an ad for the Commodore 64:

No! That tune is going to be in my head all day! The ad shows men and women using the machine (or, at least, taking orders from it) but in stereotyped ways. Junior appears to be programming it whereas his teacher just pushes buttons on a software package that someone else designed. Not sure what the women in bikinis have to do with anything but I am no ad man.

IBM ads from that era featured a Charlie Chaplin character using the PC mostly for business. So, no women or children are shown using the machines, just Chaplin. As per the olde tyme theme, women are shown in supportive roles only. I like this ad for the IBM PC Convertible, though, for its prescient depiction of distracted driving.

And then there is Apple. I could show the famous 1984 ad but no computers actually appear in it. Instead, have a look at this ad from around 1987.

Think different!

In any event, the idea that gender-biased PC sales helped to filter women out of computer science is certainly interesting. It does raise another question: Are PC sales still gender biased, or what would account for the persistence of the gender problem in Computer Science?

Apple and Facebook open the egg freezer October 20, 2014

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As pointed out in this IEEE Spectrum column by Tekla Perry, both Apple and Facebook have made the news lately for extending their employee fertility coverage to egg freezing. Roughly speaking, both companies now include in their employee health insurance coverage of a medical procedure whereby employees can have some of their eggs frozen. The procedure costs about $10,000 and then $500 per year for annual storage.

There are at least two ways of viewing this measure. One is that promoted by a satirical piece in The Onion entitled “Facebook Offers To Freeze Female Employees Newborn Children.” The piece implies that the measure is meant to tell female employees to put doing their jobs ahead of raising a family by postponing the latter until the former is accomplished. Moreover, the measure could suggest to some managers that women who nevertheless start families sooner rather than later are not team players.

Perry takes another view, which is that women “don’t have forever” to begin motherhood and that this measure will prompt them to consider their parental aspirations at the same time that it provides them with a means of planning for them.

I have no inside information about Apple or Facebook but I agree with Perry that neither company has sinister intentions. Apple and Facebook are trying to attract female employees in a sector not generally known to be female-friendly and the coverage can be seen as simply another part of the effort.

However, I disagree that the message is that women “don’t have forever”. In fact, with egg freezing, women will have longer than they would otherwise to conceive healthy offspring. (Egg quality tends to decline with age.) The question then becomes: What to do with this expanded time frame?

As Neil Postman has pointed out, technological measures have implications, whether we intend them or not. Egg freezing, along with surrogacy, is a means of displacing pregnancy via technology. As with surrogacy, the results can be mixed. In either case, though, the technology tends to emphasize the logistical aspects of parenthood at the same time it complicates them. Companies providing such coverage should take measures to ensure that it is not used against employees and perhaps also provide professional counseling to employees who are interested in taking advantage of it.

Not the right baby? October 17, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

International surrogacy has been in the news lately and for some unfortunate reasons. For example, an Australian couple has discovered that the surrogate baby they arranged for in India is not genetically related to the father. The arrangement with the unnamed Indian surrogacy service was that the father’s sperm would be used with a donor egg in the IVF procedure leading to the surrogate birth. Upon their return to Australia, the couple apparently had a paternity test done, which showed that the father is not a biological parent of the baby. What they intend or are able to do about the situation is not clear.

The news comes close on the heels of another item involving Indian surrogacy for Australians. In 2012, an Australian couple found out that a surrogacy procedure commissioned by them had resulted in twins. However, the couple wanted only one child of a specific gender in order to gender-balance their family. As a result, they took only the baby of the desired gender and left the other in India. Australian officials initially withheld a visa for the one child in order to persuade the couple to take both children with them.

A person described as a friend of the couple claimed to have taken the unwanted twin. However, authorities doubt the story and suspect that money was given in exchange for the adoption. In other words, the twin may have been sold, surely a contravention of Australia’s human trafficking laws.

I should emphasize that these sort of issues are not somehow confined to Australia. For example, a British surrogate mother recently reported that one of a pair of twins she birthed for another family was rejected by the mother. The mother took the healthy twin but refused the other on the grounds that it had congenital Myotonic Dystrophy, a progressive muscle-wasting condition.

The surrogate mother said: “I’ll never forget what she said on the phone.
“I remember her saying to me, ‘She’d be a f****** dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her? No one would want to adopt a disabled child’.”

Canadian parents have also abandoned surrogate babies, so the issue is not geographically isolated. However, with international surrogacy making the procedure more widely available, such problems will only grow in number. It seems like time that governments should get together and establish some ground rules to protect the children and others involved.

Drone News Network: Oct. 15, 2014 October 15, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

What kinds of relationships will people (and animals) have with drones? Some recent drone-related stories give us some food for thought.

Is this sort of thing nature photography or wildlife harassment?

Drones help people to push certain limits in their relations with each other (and animals) for good and for ill. The rules of engagement are still up in the air.

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