Tag Archives: transparency

Transparency

Technology must be transparent in order to be knowable. Technology must be knowable in order for us to be able to consent to it in good faith. Good faith informed consent is necessary to preserving our (digital) autonomy.

Let’s now look at this in reverse, considering first why informed consent is necessary to our digital autonomy.

Let’s take the concept of our digital autonomy as being one of the highest goods. It is necessary to preserve and respect the value of each individual, and the collectives we choose to form. It is a right to which we are entitled by our very nature, and a prerequisite for building the lives we want, that fulfill us. This is something that we have generally agreed on as important or even sacred. Our autonomy, in whatever form it takes, in whatever part of our life it governs, is necessary and must be protected.

One of the things we must do in order to accomplish this is to build a practice and culture of consent. Giving consent — saying yes — is not enough. This consent must come from a place of understand to that which one is consenting. “Informed consent is consenting to the unknowable.”(1)

Looking at sexual consent as a parallel, even when we have a partner who discloses their sexual history and activities, we cannot know whether they are being truthful and complete. Let’s even say they are and that we can trust this, there is a limit to how much even they know about their body, health, and experience. They might not know the extent of their other partners’ experience. They might be carrying HPV without symptoms; we rarely test for herpes.

Arguably, we have more potential to definitely know what is occurring when it comes to technological consent. Technology can be broken apart. We can share and examine code, schematics, and design documentation. Certainly, lots of information is being hidden from us — a lot of code is proprietary, technical documentation unavailable, and the skills to process these things is treated as special, arcane, and even magical. Tracing the resource pipelines for the minerals and metals essential to building circuit boards is not possible for the average person. Knowing the labor practices of each step of this process, and understanding what those imply for individuals, societies, and the environments they exist in seems improbable at best.

Even though true informed consent might not be possible, it is an ideal towards which we must strive. We must work with what we have, and we must be provided as much as possible.

A periodic conversation that arises in the consideration of technology rights is whether companies should build backdoors into technology for the purpose of government exploitation. A backdoor is a hidden vulnerability in a piece of technology that, when used, would afford someone else access to your device or work or cloud storage or whatever. As long as the source code that powers computing technology is proprietary and opaque, we cannot truly know whether backdoors exist and how secure we are in our digital spaces and even our own computers, phones, and other mobile devices.

We must commit wholly to transparency and openness in order to create the possibility of as-informed-as-possible consent in order to protect our digital autonomy. We cannot exist in a vacuum and practical autonomy relies on networks of truth in order to provide the opportunity for the ideal of informed consent. These networks of truth are created through the open availability and sharing of information, relating to how and why technology works the way it does.

(1) Heintzman, Kit. 2020.

Endorsements

Transparency is essential to trusting a technology. Through transparency we can understand what we’re using and build trust. When we know what is actually going on, what processes are occurring and how it is made, we are able to decide whether interacting with it is something we actually want, and we’re able to trust it and use it with confidence.

This transparency could mean many things, though it most frequently refers to the technology itself: the code or, in the case of hardware, the designs. We could also apply it to the overall architecture of a system. We could think about the decision making, practices, and policies of whomever is designing and/or making the technology. These are all valuable in some of the same ways, including that they allow us to make a conscious choice about what we are supporting.

When we choose to use a piece of technology, we are supporting those who produce it. This could be because we are directly paying for it, however our support is not limited to direct financial contributions. In some cases this is because of things hidden within a technology: tracking mechanisms or backdoors that could allow companies or governments access to what we’re doing. When creating different types of files on a computer, these files can contain metadata that says what software was used to make it. This is an implicit endorsement, and you can also explicitly endorse a technology by talking about that or how you use it. In this, you have a right (not just a duty) to be aware of what you’re supporting. This includes, for example, organizational practices and whether a given company relies on abusive labor policies, indentured servitude, or slave labor.
Endorsements inspire others to choose a piece of technology. Most of my technology is something I investigate purely for functionality, and the pieces I investigate are based on what people I know use. The people I trust in these cases are more inclined than most to do this kind of research, to perform technical interrogations, and to be aware of what producers of technology are up to.

This is how technology spreads and becomes common or the standard choice. In one sense, we all have the responsibility (one I am shirking) to investigate our technologies before we choose them. However, we must acknowledge that not everyone has the resources for this – the time, the skills, the knowledge, and therein endorsements become even more important to recognize.

Those producing a technology have the responsibility of making all of these angles something one could investigate. Understanding cannot only be the realm of experts. It should not require an extensive background in research and investigative journalism to find out whether a company punishes employees who try to unionize or pay non-living wages. Instead, these must be easy activities to carry out. It should be standard for a company (or other technology producer) to be open and share with people using their technology what makes them function. It should be considered shameful and shady to not do so. Not only does this empower those making choices about what technologies to use, but it empowers others down the line, who rely on those choices. It also respects the people involved in the processes of making these technologies. By acknowledging their role in bringing our tools to life, we are respecting their labor. By holding companies accountable for their practices and policies, we are respecting their lives.