Roger Clarke's Web-Site

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd,  1995-2024
Photo of Roger Clarke

Roger Clarke's 'Social Responsibility'

Is Social Irresponsibility Alive and Well?

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 3 December 2002

Comments for the Closing Plenary Session of ISOC-AU Forum on New Protocols and Standards-Setting in Australia, 3 December 2002

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2002

This document is at

The PowerPoint slides to support the presentation are at

I presented a paper at this conference on 'ENUM - A Case Study in Social Irresponsibility'. The Program Chair, Dr Kate Lance, readily agreed to my suggestion that I carry the theme of 'social irresponsibility of engineeers' through to the end of the conference, by offering a 10-minute report-card on how the speakers had performed. This document provides a brief summary, and access to the accompanying, small slides-set.

A series of speakers addressed technical topics (and addressed them very well). These included:

But they missed opportunity after opportunity to remark that the wonderful opportunities that the technologies create bring with them significant downsides.

For example, the 'always on' aspect of, say, ADSL, means that the user is far more crackable, and far more trackable, than a dial-in / DHCP user. And the fact that the critical field of the NAPTR record contains regular expressions not only makes the ENUM scheme far more flexible, but also much more unpredictably and frighteningly powerful.

Speakers also kept repeating the mantra that 'the IETF is open', and 'despite it's informality, it works really well'. But they failed to face up to the realities that it's only 'open' if:

Meanwhile, IPv6 was presented as if it was completely without any capability to ever harm a fly. In fact, IPv6 offers enough address-space that the IP-address could conceivably be identical to the NIC (network interface card) ID. This is seriously threatening, because it means that every device on, say, Bluetooth-style Personal Area Networks, and even chips in garments, have their own IP-address. That makes them easy targets. It also makes it very easy to draw inferences about the owner of the fridge, key-ring or shirt, not least their location now, and the trail they have followed over a period of time. By comparison against other trails, it enables the inference of associations, and behaviour, intentions, and attitudes.

Seen in that light, heirarchical schemes like NAT (network address translation, I think) seem both natural and advantageous, because they provide a foundation for consent-based opt-in arrangements, and enable nymous proxies (whether operated by a third party, or by the person themselves), suchy that your detailed personal life can be obscured from peeping toms of all descriptions.

I repeated my accusation that engineers have excused themselves for responsibilities for the outcomes of their work for far too long. Information technologies are far too powerful, and far too pervasive, to permit this self-serving pseudo-moral position to be sustained.

As   I argued in 1988, technology, applications, and implications cannot be divorced any more. It's great to be able to partition problems, and solve the partial problems. But it's resulting in yawning gaps, with massive social issues arising as a direct consequence of the failure of engineers to ensure that all the parts are addressed, and that the overall solution offers benefits without significant negative implications.

It isn't the engineer's responsibility to solve all the fearsome conundrums that arise from these technologies. But engineers have the responsibility to:

My personal focus tends to be primarily on issues related to dataveillance, identity, nymity, location and tracking. The papers presented in the second half of the conference addressed many other social implications, such as regional and rural needs, and the concerns of the sight-impaired.

The final speaker's story was especially sobering. The hearing-impaired have long benefited from the use of TTY/telex terminals, connected to the PSTN and later to analogue mobile, and using 5-bit Baudot code. Analogue mobile has been closed down in favour of digital mobile, and now there are more mobile subscribers than fixed hand-sets. In addition to all the progress this has brought, it has seriously reduced the amenity of telecommunications to the deaf.

It didn't have to be that way. But the engineers who drove those changes failed to consider the negative social implications of their work, and failed to signal clearly enough to others what was going on. This isn't 'just bad luck'. It's a form of unprofessionalism within the engineering profession.

Society can no longer afford engineers who airily claim that the consequences aren't their problem.

xamaxsmall.gif missing
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

Sponsored by the Gallery, Bunhybee Grasslands, the extended Clarke Family, Knights of the Spatchcock and their drummer
Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd
ACN: 002 360 456
78 Sidaway St, Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6288 6916

Created: 3 December 2002 - Last Amended: 3 December 2002 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
This document is at
Mail to Webmaster   -    © Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1995-2022   -    Privacy Policy