Using Technology for evil


I just read on thew news: Report: Insurgents Using Google Earth to Hit Coalition Bases in Iraq; it saddened me and reminded my of an Engineering Ethics class I took back in college. As engineers, we get so caught up in delivering “cool” technology that we often just don’t think about what evil we may be enabling. I realize this is a slippery slope and I’m not hitting on Google specifically (sounds like Google wants to cooperate to fix it). Next I’m waiting for CNN to report “Insurgents use Microsoft Word to organize attack plans”.


I was at an intern BBQ at Bill Gates house back in the the 90s when the “Microsoft is Evil” mantra seemed to be at its height and somebody asked Bill if Microsoft had too much control. Bill had a great reply. He said (paraphrased to the best of my memory) “Microsoft had very little control. You can open up Microsoft Word and type ‘Microsoft Sucks’ and we can’t stop you.”  


I’ll leave it to others to sort out whether Google used the right amount of commen sense here or not. I’m not trying to comment on this incident specifically. I’m just lamenting that in general, it’s tough to just enable the good guys. 

Comments (5)

  1. ThomasLackey says:

    I would expect any harm is almost certainly unintentional on Google’s part, however, it seems that broadcasting detailed aerial photographs of military installations in what amounts to a war zone is pretty reckless behavior.  It is beyond reason, I would guess, to expect Google to be able to tell and black out the location of every base or outpost, however, I imagine the risk to our troops and the troops of other countries such as the British and the Iraqis themselves is such that simply redacting the whole country of Iraq from their maps would be preferable to this.  Some may disagree, but I cannot think of a need compelling the display of those maps that outweighs the associated risks at this time.  The maps can go up later, when the troops have come home…

  2. good guy says:

    Yeah, enabling the ‘good guys’ is hard. Especially because ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are often used a synonyms for ‘ally’ or ‘enemy’.

    In this particular example, I’m sure a good percentage of iraqis would say that what we call insurgents (bad guys) are actually freedom fighters (good guys) trying to rid their country from foreign occupation.

    Of course, I’m not trying to imply that the ends(removing the occupying forces) justify the means (killing soldiers). Again this works both ways. The ends *never*, *ever* justify the means. Ours and their actions must be judged for their face value not for their intent (that can be spinned).

  3. William Bligh says:

    Any technology could be used for "evil". In some countries a ballpoint refill is a torture instrument. And the "evil" torturers would say they are only trying to protect their country.

    As techies and engineers we tend to be hypnotised by the positive future uses of technology and blind to the negative.

    Therefore we do not build in safeguards analogous to Asimov’s laws of robotics.

    This is further compounded by enterprises keen on making money as long as social and environmental costs can be externalised.

    Thus any surveillance technology can be used for repression or warfare. It can also be used to keep children safe and ensure criminals ( I restrict this to the clear cases like known professional killers) cannot operate unseen. It can be used by the party in power in any country to monitor and neutralize opposition, or to find climbers and hikers or crashed planes.

    As well as future uses we tend to be blind to negative consequences. Atomic power was evangelized before the problems of waste storage were even considered.

    And even if the techie or engineer is aware of the risks their technology carries with it their choice may be to carry on or starve. As I recall at Three Mile Island safety people were told to ignore danger signs to increase profits and a roll on roll off ferry in the UK capsized, if I remember correctly, because management ordered safety checks to be ignored

  4. Thomas / William – I totally agree.

  5. Fred says:

    What stumps me is that nobody just ask to himself: is this information just plausible?

    Look at that.

    Do you really think that finding 300 000 us soldiers in Irak is so terribly difficult that al qaida or whatever need google map to locate them?

    Do you really think that us ennemies in irak are so well armed that knowing where are the restroom in an us camp make them a decisive advantage? That they are so well armed that they will attak your troop directely in a military camp?

    Do your really think that irak insurged army can even compete with the us army by just using google?

    If so, go back very quicly, your are in really danger there!

    that’s just Fox News guys