Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Does Engineering Ethics Matter? Joe Carson Wonders. . . .

Last week, I said here that in light of a tragedy such as the shootings at Virginia Tech, engineering ethics paled into insignificance. The question for today is, why should engineering ethics deserve any attention at all, when there are so many more pressing matters demanding our attention?

There are those who take the view that codes of engineering ethics as they now exist are little more than window-dressing, apparently designed to create a good impression on the public, but not to do anything more substantial than that. One such is Joe Carson, an engineer whose experiences as an employee of the Department of Energy taught him that the engineering profession does not rush to defend every engineer who is fired or otherwised penalized for "whistle-blowing." According to Carson's website, many engineering-related disasters and hazards result from the engineering profession's reluctance to both take its codes of ethics seriously, and to defend its members from unjust retribution by employers who are made to look bad when engineers bring such problems to light. Carson has organized an Association of Christian Engineers whose purpose is to bring Christian-based ethical principles into engineering in a way that makes a real difference.

Carson makes some good points. As things now stand, nearly all engineering codes of ethics are not binding and have no force either of law or rule. In other words, the worst that can happen if an engineer, or an entire organization, violates ethical codes but otherwise stays within the limits of statutory laws, is a guilty conscience. And many of us are used to living with those.

One reason is that most engineers in the U. S. are not required to have a Professional Engineer license in order to work in industry. This is in marked contrast to the status quo in the legal and medical professions, and even such mundane enterprises as surveying and plumbing, where some form of state or federal licensure is needed in order to make money doing those jobs. People who violate legal or medical codes of ethics (which often have the force of law) can lose their privilege to practice by the action of a professional licensing board. This economic threat must have some effect, although cases of lawyers and doctors who lose their licensure through malpractice are not as common as you might think.

Another reason is the lack of solidarity among engineers as contrasted with, for example, trade unions. The grievance procedure is a time-honored feature of all unionized workplaces. Any employer who runs afoul of union-monitored workplace rules runs the risk of getting embroiled in a lengthy and costly battle with the union, which generally rushes to the aid of its allegedly wronged member. As in any conflict involving organizational power, abuse can take place on both sides, but at least there is a restraint in place to limit the power of the employer to act arbitrarily. Not so in the case of engineering societies, which for the most part strenuously avoid acting like unions. If Mr. Carson had been a member of a federally-recognized union instead of just belonging to the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Nuclear Society, the outcome of his conflicts with the Department of Energy might have been very different, at least for him personally, and perhaps for the people who are endangered by the hazards he has spoken about publicly.

So what should be done? Mr. Carson has several suggestions. One is to make licensure a requirement for employment in any engineering job, not just for those few engineers whose need to sign off on plans for public projects makes licensure a necessity for them. Standing in the way of this goal is the fact that all states have what is called an industrial exemption which waives the license requirement for jobs in the private sector, by and large. This is a matter for state legislatures, which are notoriously tied to local industry and will loosen those ties only if another powerful force will make itself felt. The engineering societies could move in this direction, but so far they have given little sign of any interest along these lines. Another suggestion, which requires no legislation, is for the professional engineering societies to take up arms in defense of members who unjustly lose their jobs or other privileges when they act in accordance with ethical principles. At various times in the past, organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have produced "friend-of-the-court" briefs in legal cases involving ethical engineers and unethical employers. But for the last decade or so, I have seen little evidence that IEEE is interested in such matters, although its Society for Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) does give out a Barus Award from time to time which honors notably courageous engineers who put their careers at risk to expose risky products or practices. (Full disclosure: I am currently treasurer of SSIT, which office is not as impressive as it may sound.)

Finally, Mr. Carson wishes that religious motivations for ethical behavior were not automatically ruled out of order in most modern technical societies. He writes that "engineering professional societies should acknowledge that faith-based motivations are valid . . . [and relate] to their efforts to uplift and defend the engineering profession, its code of ethics, and its service to society." As we have noted elsewhere (see the Jan. 2 blog herein "Science, Engineering, and Ethical Choice: Who's In Charge?"), without some larger encompassing narrative or worldview, all engineering activity becomes "sound and fury, signifying nothing." The significance of engineering must be placed in a larger context, or else the thing that should be only a means to human blessing becomes a monstrous and insatiable end in itself.

Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, says this about the dangers of technology unlimited by some kind of theological understanding: "Human beings have long aspired to control the ultimate foundations of ordinary reality. We have made a little progress, and there remains an unwavering sense that this is the direction of our destiny. That is the theological meaning of the scientific and technological enterprise. It has always presented itself as the instrument for solving human problems, though without its theological context it becomes idolatrous and goes mad."

Stern words. Does that mean I favor a religious belief test before any engineer can become licensed to practice in private or public enterprises? Absolutely not. But I do think we have gone so far in the other direction away from any acknowledgment of the role of supernatural belief (including but not limited to Christianity) in the engineering enterprise, that we should not be surprised when the rather feeble and often ineffective things we do regarding engineering ethics, often fail to improve the ethical behavior of people and organizations engaged in technology. I do not agree with everything Joe Carson says. But I do think he's on to something, and I hope that his efforts meet with greater success than they have so far.

Sources: Joe Carson is president of the Association of Christian Engineers, whose website is www.christianengineer.org. His account of his trials and tribulations with the Department of Energy can be found at www.carsonversusdoe.com. The quotation about engineering and faith-based motivations is from his article in the December 2005 issue of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's publication "Professional Ethics Report." Dallas Willard's words are from p. 336 of Willard's The Divine Conspiracy (Harper San Francisco, 1998). The list of engineers and others who have received the IEEE Society for Social Implications of Technology's Barus Award can be found at http://www.ieeessit.org/about.asp?Level2ItemID=5.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In Memoriam: Victims of the Virginia Polytechnic University Shootings

On this, the evening of the day that saw the violent deaths of more than thirty victims of a shooting at Virginia Tech, ordinary concerns regarding engineering ethics pale into insignificance. Engineering has few martyrs. But these slayings took place at an institution dedicated to the education of engineers. If any of those who died had not chosen to enter that difficult and challenging field, he or she might well be alive tonight.

We are not told why one person, well-liked, promising, full of life and enthusiasm, is cut down at an early age, while another is spared to live a long, selfish, and unfruitful life. Those who believe that the things perceived by the five senses do not comprise all there is, but also believe in "that which is unseen," can hope to know the Source of all knowledge some day. And it may be that what is shocking and senseless to us now, may then seem part of a larger pattern or shape that we cannot now imagine. Whether any of this we saw today will make sense then—is another question we cannot now answer.

Those that fell today are martyrs—the word originally meant "witnesses"—as much as those engineers who accept assignments in the military to bring the blessings of clean water and electricity to Iraq, or those who fight tropical diseases and harsh conditions to build cell-phone networks in developing countries. Engineering is not an easy course of education, nor is it an easy profession. But it can be a good one—good in the sense of benevolence, in the sense of bringing things of real value to people who need them. And good things that bless people are worth doing, even at the cost of personal risk.

My profound sympathy goes to the families of the victims, the students, staff, and faculty members of the Virginia Tech community.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered;
Accept our prayers on behalf of the souls of thy servants departed,
And grant them entrance into the land of light and joy,
in the fellowship of thy saints;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

May I Beam Your Passport, Please?

Fraudulent U. S. passports can lead to a lot of trouble, which is why a couple of years ago, the U. S. State Department announced that as of October 2006, all new passports issued would contain an RFID chip with identifying information such as the owner's photograph, name, and birth date. These chips provide their information to a suitably equipped reader placed a few inches away, without the need for physical contact.

From the viewpoint of a potential passport forger, this is bad news. From now on, he will have to imitate not only the paper quality and other distinguishing characteristics of a genuine passport, but will also have to make or steal an RFID chip with encrypted data that matches the printed information and can be read by a U. S. customs official's machine. Or at least that seems to be the thinking of the State Department.

What they may not have counted on is the chorus of negative publicity that has greeted the introduction of the new technology. Numerous news reports over the last two years portray the RFID-equipped passport as a security risk, not a benefit. The fear is that a hacker with pirated software and enough hardware could read your name and personal information from many feet away, not just inches, and without your knowledge. To alleviate these fears, State added a metallic shield in the cover so the chip can't be read unless the booklet is open. But critics weren't satisfied: hotels, restaurants, banks, and many other establishments often want to see your passport, and who knows if you're being spied upon by radio waves at any of those places? The government has gone ahead with the rollout, but the prevailing winds of public opinion still blow cold on the idea.

I've discussed RFID at other times, so today I'd like to concentrate on a factor that many engineers either ignore or neglect in dealing with ethical issues: public perception of a technology. For better or worse, engineers tend to be a breed apart: conversant with mathematics that is unfamiliar to most people, inclined to think in terms of logical connections and detailed chains of reasoning rather than overall impressions, and often (but not always) insensitive to the emotional resonance of a situation. To a logical, problem-solving mind (many of which may work for the U. S. State Department, we hope), the problem of U. S. passport fraud suggests a technical solution: RFID chips that are hard to fake and hard to read without authorized gear. Since the cost of a passport hasn't gone up, and they will be easier to use if anything, why on earth would anyone object to such a thing?

I'll tell you why: because the notion of someone being able to view your photograph, date of birth, and other personal data by invisible means of which you are unaware, creeps out many ordinary people. (If I concentrate, I can get creeped out by it myself, although it's an effort.) I think it's this instinctive repugnance at the idea that some kind of evil twin of Superman can look through your clothes, into your wallet, and read stuff that you don't want just anybody to see, that is at the root of a lot of the opposition to RFID-equipped passports.

Technically speaking, the critics have a point. I am no RFID expert, but I do know something about antennas, and with any RFID system there are at least two antennas involved: one on the chip and one in the reader. Basic antenna theory says that the maximum distance you can read an RFID chip from depends on the characteristics of both antennas. A potential data thief can't do anything about the RFID chip's antenna, but he can certainly build a fancier and more sensitive antenna than the usual reader employs, especially if he can hide it somewhere at a distance (because it will tend to be larger than the conventional unit). So there is some truth to the idea that RFID chips which are normally read from a few inches away can sometimes be read at much larger distances if you go to enough trouble on the reader end.

As far as hacking the encryption software goes, unless the State Department has come up with something new that they're not talking about, it is simply a matter of bringing to bear enough resources to break virtually any computer encryption. One big problem in this department is that passports are supposed to be valid for ten years. If some bad guy out there does manage to break the RFID encryption code, is the U. S. State Department going to recall all its passports for an upgrade? The answer isn't clear.

But beyond these technical problems lies the larger public relations problem. If I were a State Department engineer, I might say something like, "Look, these people who are complaining don't understand the technology, they don't understand the problems with forgery we're having, and anyway, they don't have a choice, so they might as well pipe down." Needless to say, such an attitude is unhelpful. Whenever an organization tries to introduce a new technology, people will try to make sense of it by using whatever intellectual resources they have. For good or ill, RFID has a kind of spooky spying-at-a-distance reputation these days which seems to be predominantly negative except among a minority of enthusiasts such as the gentleman who implanted RFID chips in his hands (see this blog's "A Chip In Your Shoulder?", Mar. 27). The public doesn't seem to mind RFID chips in bags of cookies or packaged rutabags if it helps check you out at the grocery store faster. But chips in your passport or your body, that's getting personal, and the emotional temperature falls right away.

I'm not sure how the State Department could have handled this better. But it does seem like they should have informed themselves more about what people would think of the new technology. They did respond to initial concerns with the shielding fix, but as often happens, the negative press got rolling and gained a momentum of its own. Now you can read different ideas on how to disable the chips, ranging from washing the passport with your socks and underwear (doesn't work) to running it through a microwave (throws off sparks and catches fire) to pounding the back cover with a hammer (probably effective). Nobody is saying what happens if you show up with one of the new passports in which the chip doesn't work. Maybe if it means a full-body search, people will change their minds about wrecking the chips. For me personally, I'm going to hang on to my old passport till it expires in 2011, and maybe by that time they will have come up with something even more advanced—or more controversial.

Sources: An article by Kelly Heyboer in the New Orleans Times-Picayune online edition of Apr. 8, 2007 (http://www.nola.com/national/t-p/index.ssf?/base/news-0/1176014434312450.xml&coll=1) clued me in to this issue. Bruce Schneier of the Washington Post wrote a critical piece about it in the Sept. 16, 2006 edition found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/15/AR2006091500923.html. I tried to look at the U. S. State Department's website that deals with U. S. passports, but the page was apparently down or overloaded.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Nanny for Nanotech? Government and Nanotechnology Hazards

Very small things can cause us lots of trouble, from flu viruses to tiny asbestos fibers that lodge in the lungs and lead to mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. But up to now, all the very small things we had to worry about occurred naturally. In the last few years, we've learned how to make things that small artificially as well. And some people are worried that no one is paying much attention to the question of whether tiny artificial stuff could be as dangerous as the tiny natural stuff we've learned to live with—or die with.

Scientists have developed a special unit of measure for these things: the nanometer. One billion nanometers is a meter (which is a little longer than a yard, for you non-metric types). A human hair looks like the trunk of a redwood tree compared to a virus or an asbestos fiber, which can be as small as 10 nanometers in diameter. When things get that small, they start acting peculiar, because the graininess or lumpiness of matter begins to show up—the fact that it's made of atoms. This can be both very good or very bad, depending on what you're looking at. Take carbon nanotubes, for instance. These are tiny tubes that, if you could see them, would look like elegantly woven fabric, every atom in place. Atom for atom, if you pull on one of these tubes, it's much stronger than steel, and it can conduct electricity much better than copper, but only along the direction of the tube. This stuff has already made it into some commercial products, and hopes are that it will form the basis of entire new industries. Other nano-size chemicals and particles are finding their way into everything from electrical products to cosmetics. That's the good news.

The possible bad news is, no one much is looking into the question of whether these tiny engineered particles are dangerous to living organisms, and in particular, people. So far, there hasn't been a tragedy involving artificial nanotech products along the lines of the "radium girls" disaster of the 1920s. But we don't know that it won't happen, either.

In some ways, radium was the nanotech of the early 1900s. Marie and Pierre Curie, radium's discoverers, were international heroes. Women who were hired to paint glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch and clock dials with radium-bearing paint thought they were lucky to be working with such exciting stuff. Some even used it as makeup and lipstick, which must have freaked out their boyfriends when they turned off the lights.

But within a few years, these women found out their jobs were no joking matter as many of them began to fall ill with liver problems, anemia, bone fractures, and rotting jawbones. The cause, of course, was the intense doses of radiation from the radium they absorbed in their bodies. Their employers initially denied any responsibility, the U. S. government declined to get involved, and it took years of persistent work by industrial pathologists, politicians, and others sympathetic to the workers' plight to get radium recognized for the terrible occupational hazard it was.

Are we facing a similar situation in the proliferation of nanotech products for consumers? There is a technical aspect and a political aspect to the question.

The technical aspect is, nobody knows for certain. But scientific knowledge isn't free: someone has to pay for tests, investigations, reports, and the other overhead stuff that goes along with finding out things these days. We know some things about nano-scale materials and how they interact with the nano-scale machinery of living cells, but certainly not everything. One reason nanotechnology and biotechnology are so attractive to researchers and investors is the fact that we don't know all about what goes on between these two areas, and so we're trying to find out. Absolute certainty that a product is free from any hazard to humans is not something we can usually obtain at a reasonable cost. The usual product testing will often show up prompt hazards (ones that don't take years to develop), and as for the others, well, since many companies operate on a six-month product cycle, waiting fifteen years for the outcome of a longitudinal study of biohazards just doesn't make a lot of sense to them.

That brings up the political question. Partly because I'm no political scientist and like to reduce everything to vectors (at least that's what my wife says), I like to drive things to extremes in order to understand where we stand in the middle. On one extreme would be total non-regulation: anybody can make anything anywhere, and sell it to anyone, claiming anything for it, and let the buyer beware. I understand this state of affairs isn't too far from reality in parts of China nowadays. It's a pretty good environment for entrepreneurs, assuming they don't have to live downwind from a paper mill or something equally offensive. But the dangers to consumers are obvious.

The other extreme is complete and total "nanny-stateism" (hence the nanny in today's headline): no product is allowed to fall into the hands of the consumer until the manufacturer has been held guilty of its being harmful, and forced to prove himself innocent. Things are not quite this bad in some Scandinavian countries, but show signs of moving in that direction. At this extreme, companies give up on making money and spend their dwindling capital on safety studies that take years and let their competitors in less regulated regions beat them to the market. Clearly, this extreme isn't going to work very well either.

Being an engineer and not a political scientist, I tend to trust democracy to stumble around between these two extremes and find a middle road that is neither too negligent of the consumer's interests nor too stifling of the manufacturer's initiative. Nobody will be entirely happy with such a compromise, but that is how democracy works, or is supposed to work. In the past, it has taken a major tragedy, with people dying in large numbers from unusual causes, to motivate large-scale regulation of certain industries. That's too bad, from one point of view, but if the alternative is to regulate ourselves into the past and defer the use of any new nanotech products until we're absolutely, positively sure they're safe, then that's not so good either. Some studies by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars indicate that no one—meaning no government agency charged with the responsibility—is overseeing the vast new field of consumer products that use nano-size particles. At the risk of annoying any libertarian readers of my blog, I would venture the opinion that at least somebody who is not beholden to manufacturers should look into this on a regular basis. But I would also venture that they shouldn't interfere with things until they find there is some reason to believe there is trouble brewing.

Sources: The Wilson Center website at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/ describes some of the work of their emerging nanotechnology project at http://www.nanotechproject.org/. This column was inspired by a piece in the Austin American-Statesman for Apr. 1, 2007 (p. A19) by Jeff Nesmith about the Wilson Center. Reviews of Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997), which I haven't read but would like to some day, can be found at the Amazon.com entry for the book.