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Software developers have a responsibility not to harm users

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October 10, 2014

On any given day, software developers should not be content with just writing code that works well and is user-friendly-- they also have a responsibility not to harm their users, say Agile development experts Martin Fowler and Erik Do¨Rnenburg, speaking at the Goto Aarhus conference in Denmark last week.

Fowler was among the signatories of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, part of the movement to promote incremental and collaborative software development rather than setting an industry specification and then throwing it over to programmers for coding.

As a software firm, Agile has been influential, to the extent that most software projects today claim to adopt it, but Fowler says that his biggest disappointment is that software is still mostly designed by analysts rather than being truly collaborative.

A key Agile concept is that all stakeholders participate in the process, including the users.

Creating software that encourages users to do things that aren’t in their interest is not Agile. It is a “dark pattern”, says Fowler. Examples include ecommerce sites that add insurance to your purchase without asking, or printer drivers that refuse to print even when there is ink in the cartridge because the vendor thinks you should buy a new one after a certain number of pages.

“The developer who wrote that code is every bit as responsible as the person who told them to do it. You have a choice. You have a responsibility to ensure that your users are well treated and to reject dark patterns,” says Fowler.

“We have a whole profession of people writing software and doing enormous things to change the way we live in the world,” he added.

Spending a bit more on ink is one thing, but the more serious issue is the emerging surveillance culture, argue Fowler and Do¨Rnenburg.

“What we do online is often tracked to a pretty high extent at times, and a lot of it by commercial organizations,” says Fowler. Privacy is constantly undermined. “We are trained to think that privacy is a special need. The default is everybody can observe everything. Privacy should be the default. The tracking should be something that is out of the norm,” says Do¨Rnenburg.

“And worse, most people think this doesn't matter when it really does, either because they have nothing to hide, or simply because they believe they aren't interesting to those who might be observing them. This is a false argument, they argue, because there are people for whom it does matter-- “the kind of people that annoy and bother those that are powerful. One example is an investigative journalist,” says Fowler.

He added “Those people are essential to the operation of a free society. If we don’t have investigative journalists rooting out corruption, how do we know how to vote intelligently?”.

One of the core problems is that so much data passes through the internet without encryption. “The responsibility is on us as a profession, says Do¨Rnenburg. “It is simply naïve that we created protocols like email and HTTP that transmitted everything in plain text. We as technologists have taken the easy way out. Then we blame the users and tell them to install this or that plug-in. We need to make it so easy to use that normal users do not need to do anything special.”

Fowler and Rnenburg are promoting an open source project called Pixelated which does encrypted email. Another issue is centralization, they say. “If you look at the history, first everything was heavily centralized in the mainframe era, then we had a level of decentralization with the client-server model , and then with the cloud platforms you’re going back to a different kind of centralization,” said ThoughtWorks CTO Rebecca Parsons.

“When you are looking at a surveillance surface, there are only a small number of places to go to. With email, with Salesforce, you’re getting a massive centralization there. So you have to ask yourself-- is that a good thing after all?”

Parsons added that “the extent of decentralization is something that can be considered when architecting a solution to a problem. You can use peer to peer architecture rather than a more centralised architecture.”

Source: The Goto Aarhus Conference.

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