Is Anonymity Research Ethical?

April 9, 2009 at 8:42 pm 8 comments

A researcher who is working on writing style analysis (“stylometry”), after reading my post on related de-anonymization techniques, wonders what the positive impact of such research could be, given my statement that the malicious uses of the technology are far greater than the beneficial ones. He says:

Sometimes when I’m thinking of an interesting research topic it’s hard to forget the Patton Oswalt line “Hey, we made cancer airborne and contagious! You’re welcome! We’re science: we’re all about coulda, not shoulda.”

This was my answer:

To me, generic research on algorithms always has a positive impact (if you’re breaking a specific website or system, that’s a different story; a bioweapon is a whole different category.) I do not recognize a moral question here, and therefore it does not affect what I choose to work on.

My belief that the research will have a positive impact is not at odds with my belief that the uses of the technology are predominantly evil.  In fact, the two are positively correlated. If we’re talking about web search technology, if academics don’t invent it, then (benevolent) companies will. But if we’re talking about de-anonymization technology, if we don’t do it, then malevolent entities will invent it (if they haven’t already), and of course, keep it to themselves. It comes down to a choice between a world where everyone has access to de-anonymization techniques, and hopefully defenses against it, versus one in which only the bad guys do. I think it’s pretty clear which world most people will choose to live in.

I realize I lean toward the “coulda” side of the question of whether Science is—or should be—amoral. Someone like Prof. Benjamin Kuipers here at UT seems to be close to the other end of the spectrum: he won’t take any DARPA money.

Part of the problem with allowing morality to affect the direction of science is that it is often arbitrary. The Patton Oswalt quote above is a perfect example: he apparently said that in response to news of science enabling a 63 year old woman to give birth. The notion that something is wrong simply because it is not “natural” is one that I find most repugnant. If the freedom of a 63 year old woman to give birth is not an important issue to you, let me note that more serious issues such as stem cell research, that could save lives, fall under the same category.

Going back to anonymity, it is interesting that tools like Tor face much criticism, but for enabling the anonymity of “bad” people rather than breaking the anonymity of “good” people. Who is to be the arbiter of the line between good and bad? I share the opinion of most techies that Tor is a wonderful thing for the world to have.

There are many sides to this issue and many possible views. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. HS  |  April 10, 2009 at 6:40 am

    When people raise concerns over the ethics of scientific research, I see two separate questions:

    1) Is the information you’re trying to discover something the world really needs to know?

    2) Is your quest for understanding something rooted in a good cause?

    I think the first question is irrelevant.
    I know “Information wants to be free” is cliched but its also true. You can’t prevent the information from ever coming out. So refusing to do research on the grounds that you hope it would never be discovered is misguided.

    The second question is more personal to the person doing the research:
    Would you be comfortable doing research on how to make an air-borne vector for a contagious fatal disease?

    Sure, some good *might* come out of that research and someone will figure it out if you don’t, but I wouldn’t want to do it anyway. I don’t want my name on that paper.

    Reply
  • 2. Arvind  |  April 10, 2009 at 7:04 am

    Excellent points, thanks for the comments.

    Reply
  • 3. beala  |  April 12, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Interesting post. It seems to me that this question is very closely related to the issue of free speech, and would be something along the lines of “Should we have the right to publish research on any topic?” A good heuristic for gauging this would be “Would publishing research on this topic directly infringe upon anyone’s rights?” i.e., we should to appeal to some form of the harm principle. In any case, as long as we’re talking about legitimate research in academia, it seems to me that the answer would almost always be “No, it doesn’t infringe upon anyone’s rights.” Perhaps if you were doing research exclusively for a malicious organization, with the intent of using it for evil, then the answer would be “Yes, you’re infringing on someone’s rights” but I doubt that’s what’s going on at 33bits.org ;) So, in most cases academics should be free to research what they please.

    Now, although I do agree with your conclusion, I’m not so sure about some of the reasons you give. At one point you say that the question is irrelevant to you because, “I do not recognize a moral question here, and therefore it does not affect what I choose to work on.” The response is, of course, “But, should you recognize a moral question? And should that affect your work?” I believe that the answer is, “Yes, there is a moral question here, and yes it should affect your work, but it turns out that almost all of the time, the answer is: Research is permissible.” Why? Because it would be very hard to demonstrate that academic research does any direct harm to a specific person’s or group’s rights.

    Second, as a philosopher, this sort of thing irks me: “Part of the problem with allowing morality to affect the direction of science is that it is often arbitrary.” Although this is a viable, albeit unpopular, philosophical position, my problem is that people don’t usually recognize the consequences of such a statement. Should we excuse Hitler because “Morality is often arbitrary”? Most people shy away from this sort of ethical nihilism when confronted with questions like that. Or perhaps you want to say that we should withhold judgment about certain research topics because the issue is so difficult. But once again, I ask, “Should we withhold the judgment of Hitler because ethics is hard?” Admittedly, research and Hitler are two very different things, but the point is that we shouldn’t shy away from ethics because it’s difficult, and saying that ethics is arbitrary entails some things that seem obviously false to me.

    Last is something that HS brought up. He stated that, “You can’t prevent the information from ever coming out. So refusing to do research on the grounds that you hope it would never be discovered is misguided.” Let’s run this argument again with some word substitution: “You can’t prevent Mr. X from being assassinated (he’s just so unpopular!). So, refusing to kill him yourself is misguided.” As you can see, there’s a something virtuous about keeping your hands clean. You shouldn’t do something just because you know that if you don’t, someone else will instead. There’s your own morality that you need to be worried about!

    Anyway, you see this sort of argument all the time. It’s of the form: It would be very hard to stop X, so we might as well just legalize X (and/or do X ourselves).
    In any case, I think a good thought to end with is the following: Free speech is a good just like any other good. It must be weighed against other interests, and then we must decide how important to us is. Once this is decided, then the appropriate restraints must be applied to it. Although I do agree that legitimate academic research is permissible, it would be a mistake to think that free speech should never be restrained, and that we should ignore the question of morality when it comes to research.

    Reply
  • 4. beala  |  April 12, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    Too the moderator: Oops some typos in the last paragraphs of my post. It’d be great if you could change it to:

    Last is something that HS brought up. He stated that, “You can’t prevent the information from ever coming out. So refusing to do research on the grounds that you hope it would never be discovered is misguided.” Let’s run this argument again with some word substitution: “You can’t prevent Mr. X from being assassinated (he’s just so unpopular!). So, refusing to kill him yourself is misguided.” As you can see, there’s a something virtuous about keeping your hands clean. You shouldn’t do something just because you know that if you don’t, someone else will instead. There’s your own morality that you need to be worried about! Anyway, you see this sort of argument all the time. It’s of the form: It would be very hard to stop X, so we might as well just legalize X (and/or do X ourselves).

    In any case, I think a good thought to end with is the following: Free speech is a good just like any other good. It must be weighed against other interests, and then we must decide how important to us it is. Once this is decided, then the appropriate restraints must be applied to it. Although I do agree that legitimate academic research is permissible, it would be a mistake to think that free speech should never be restrained, and that we should ignore the question of morality when it comes to research.

    Reply
  • 5. Arvind  |  April 13, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    beala, interesting comments. Perhaps you’re right that I should be thinking about the moral questions, no matter what I might ultimately conclude.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I quite agree with your word substitutions, especially in response to HS’s statement. I think the situation is that it would be “best” if the de-anonymization techniques were never discovered, but given that we cannot hope for that possibility, the next best thing would be to discover them as soon as possible so that we can start working on the defenses and so on. As you can see, this is not at all analogous to assassination.

    I feel that philosophy occasionally degenerates into word-play :-) I wonder how philosophers decide where to draw the line.

    Reply
  • 6. Chris Andrichak  |  April 16, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    This is definitely a grey area, but it is always best that people are thinking about it, and applying it to what they’re currently working on – not in the regrettable hindsight when their work turns ‘evil’ on them.

    Reply
  • 7. Odzyskiwanie Danych  |  July 10, 2009 at 10:00 am

    We as “good guys” should know all this stuff before the “bad guys” do. That’s why we need to research this technology or we’ll be seriously sorry soon.

    Reply
  • 8. Stancja  |  July 23, 2009 at 10:36 am

    It’s like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. We need the knowledge because pursuit of it is the basic human nature. What we’ll do with it later is another matter.

    Reply

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About 33bits.org

I'm an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

For an explanation of the blog title and more info, see the About page.

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