Transparency as a vehicle for social good has clear limitations. Photo: Stockphoto

Diversity an issue when privacy’s in play

Wednesday, 18 April, 2018 - 15:54

While in the US and EU focus their attention on Facebook’s failure to secure the data it had captured on millions of users, I can’t help wondering whether greater diversity might have prevented the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

A loss of privacy has a disproportionate effect on women and people of colour.

Acccording to Shireen Mitchell from the US-based non-profit Digital Sistas: “Though (women of colour) are most likely to speak up online about difficult situations, they are least likely to be believed or provided support.”

Making matters worse, these are the very people who are largely being excluded from design decisions around how privacy is protected (or not) in the technology we all use.

In 2017, Facebook reported that women filled just 19 per cent of its technical roles. In addition, African Americans made up only 3 per cent of its total workforce, while 5 per cent were Hispanic.

These numbers are not unique to Facebook; across the board, Silicon Valley has a diversity problem.

These are the people making the technology that the rest of the world uses – a world that does not match the homogenous demographics of Silicon Valley.

Tech isn’t neutral

Despite how we usually think about it, technology is not inherently neutral or unbiased. People create technology, and we all have different life experiences, beliefs and backgrounds. So it actually really matters who is making the technology we all use.

An example. Social science professor Langdon Winner’s classic essay ‘Do Artefacts Have Politics?’ explores how beliefs can be embedded in technology. He writes about Robert Moses, who was in charge of building freeways around Long Island, New York, in the 1930s, and writes that Moses intentionally built the overpasses too low, so that buses could not use them.

Why? Winner says Moses wanted to keep black and low-income individuals (who were predominantly users of public transport) off his new roads and away from the beaches and recreational areas to which these roads provided access.

We might forget that roads are indeed a form of technology – and in this case, the racist and classist views Moses is known to have held were not only embedded in them, but have had a direct impact on millions.

Google Buzz

However, even completely innocent assumptions can build accidental bias into technology.

Take Google’s ill-fated Buzz product. In 2010, the social networking/microblogging platform was integrated into Gmail. The designers of the product made the assumption that if you had a lot of contact with someone via email, you’d also want to automatically share more information with them.

At face value, this seems logical. But that same year, a woman who was trying to escape an abusive ex-husband – with whom she’d had a lot of contact with over Gmail – found that some of her information was being automatically shared with him, putting her safety at risk.

Is this a design decision that would have been made by a more diverse team, one where someone in the team had experienced this sort of situation, or knew someone who had? I would venture to guess the answer is no.

Radical transparency

Indeed, the belief running through the design of Google Buzz that sharing more information is always best reflects an attitude not uncommon in Silicon Valley around privacy.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes in what’s described as ‘radical transparency’, the belief that privacy is detrimental to society, and transparency is a force for social good.

It’s a concept that makes sense if you’re Mr Zuckerberg, but not if you’re a woman trying to escape an abusive ex-husband, or trying to protect yourself from online harassment.

Anyone who has used Facebook would likely immediately recognise Facebook as a platform built on this concept. The site’s design continually nudges users to share more, both with the world and with the co

While in the US and EU focus their attention on Facebook’s failure to secure the data it had captured on millions of users, I can’t help wondering whether greater diversity might have prevented the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

A loss of privacy has a disproportionate effect on women and people of colour.

Acccording to Shireen Mitchell from the US-based non-profit Digital Sistas: “Though (women of colour) are most likely to speak up online about difficult situations, they are least likely to be believed or provided support.”

Making matters worse, these are the very people who are largely being excluded from design decisions around how privacy is protected (or not) in the technology we all use.

In 2017, Facebook reported that women filled just 19 per cent of its technical roles. In addition, African Americans made up only 3 per cent of its total workforce, while 5 per cent were Hispanic.

These numbers are not unique to Facebook; across the board, Silicon Valley has a diversity problem.

These are the people making the technology that the rest of the world uses – a world that does not match the homogenous demographics of Silicon Valley.

Cambridge Analytica

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, commentators noted that Facebook’s involvement was a feature of the site, not a bug. Collecting and sharing/selling as much information as possible is how the site worked.

Just as with Google Buzz, one has to wonder how Facebook would look if the team creating it reflected the make-up of the people using it.

If there were more people at Facebook who have had direct experiences of harassment or threats to personal safety as a result of lost privacy, would the company have taken such a laissez-faire approach to the privacy of its users?

Maybe not so much.

Innovation through diversity

Thankfully, the inverse is also true. As I have written about previously, numerous studies show is there is a clear link between diversity and innovation. So, supporting diversity in your company isn’t just a nice thing to do, it can actually give you a competitive advantage.

Most importantly, however, it can help ensure your company is doing good in the world, by being of service to everyone.