Use of Unethical Software in Education Sector

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Wed Jul 21, 2021 · 1467 words · 8 min
Tags :  foss rant

Introduction

Online education has received a huge boost during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, many educational institutes were focussing on tech literacy. However, all this ends up promoting unethical software. During the IT boom in past decades, we have seen many corporations rely on selling software to make money. Oftentimes, this software is proprietary and robs users of their basic rights and freedoms. With the recent push towards IT education and increasing reliance on software in the education industry, unethical softwares have amassed a humongous user base. I'll try to justify my basis of calling certain softwares "unethical" and how educational institutes unknowingly end up promoting them. The issue has a heavy impact on the quality of software general users eventually have to bear with.

Why FOSS?

Free (as in 'freedom') software today is the backbone of many software enterprises. Modern app development is increasingly growing reliant on code reuse. This is made possible because the source code is under an open-source license that lets users adapt, edit and redistribute it.

FOSS encourages choice and power on the part of the user. They are not bound to an ecosystem or suite and rather are free to mix and match the software they like and use it. More advanced users also benefit by being able to modify the software and adapt it to their needs. Having the right to reverse engineer software allows students to learn and possibly develop solutions to existing problems without requiring to code everything from scratch, or relying on an opaque library.

Even for a normal person, who isn't necessarily into programming, FOSS plays a vital role in their lives. Most of our tech services are online nowadays. And the server space is dominated by free and open-source operating systems, making it possible for you to access the various services on the internet.

FOSS are almost always privacy-respecting and are audited by independent users, who will be quick to point out any flaw that remotely affects privacy. This auditing by independent users also means that FOSS gets faster bug fixes and can be more secure. It may even provide better performance or success rate than its proprietary counterparts. While there is no evidence to conclusively prove this claim, it is a fact that the security by obscurity model followed by most proprietary software hasn't made them any more secure or reliable than FOSS.

Ethics

By encouraging users to modify and redistribute the software, FOSS inculcates a sense of responsibility and respect for freedom. This becomes very important in an age where people gladly agree to give up their privacy and rights just to be "connected" on so-called "social media" platforms.

Closed source and proprietary softwares do not share their source code so adapting it to your needs is impossible unless you are happy with the exact software that is shipped. They can also not be reverse-engineered for learning purposes or otherwise. Developers will try their best to obfuscate the code so that reverse-engineering becomes futile. It means that as a user, you can never be sure that the software is not doing anything malicious. We have seen cases in the past where manufacturers slow down old phones so that people buy new ones or social media apps collecting tons of private user data. There are many such examples of unethical practices, which are made possible because of closed source software.

The Education Sector

With the advent of digital learning, students have to use a variety of softwares to complete their courses. At the very least, they need to use a communication platform and video call software.

With Google and Microsoft supporting easy onboarding for educational institutes, there is a high probability that a school/college is using services from one of these companies.

Their software is closed source and proprietary, which means the students have no idea whatsoever about the processing of their data. Meeting softwares may record videos and audio without explicit permission and use it to train their AI software. Misuse of this data is very much possible (and it was highlighted in the case where Amazon employees were caught listening to users via Alexa). Companies try to get around legal hurdles by including clauses in their Terms of Use, which students have to accept if they want to attend classes.

Now, this is a grave situation - as bad as the teacher asking students to do a socially unacceptable act if they want to pass the semester. It will surely become news if something like that happens outside of the tech domain. But when the same student is forced to give up his privacy in the hands of a big tech corporation, so that he can pass the semester, nobody bats an eyelid. Forcing students - directly or indirectly - to use proprietary software should be considered a severe violation of their rights.

Take another common example. In the current age of digital education, many times students are supposed to prepare a "Word Document" or a "PowerPoint Presentation" for their assessment. These again are do or die situations for the student. Either they use a closed source proprietary software (MS Office) or they fail the class. Instead, the teacher should accept assignments in a format like PDF, which can be created using any software the student may want to use. If it's necessary to accept assignments in a document or presentation format, then teachers can encourage the use of FOSS alternatives for MS Office, like Libre Office.

There are numerous other softwares students are forced to use - like online forms for examinations, circuit simulation softwares etc.

Richard Stallman, who started the free software movement, believes that making students use proprietary software is like making them addicted to cigarettes. Eventually, proprietary softwares will get hold of the student's life and she/he will have great difficulty in untangling themselves from this addiction. It is the moral responsibility of educational institutes to educate students about these issues and encourage them to stay away from such addictions.

The lack of awareness about FOSS among teachers is eventually inherited by students. These students, later in their lives make bad choices for the softwares to use because they could never appreciate FOSS. A person who grew up in a dictatorial country, cut off from the world, will probably never think of democracy.

Future Concerns

We already know that the nature of FOSS ensures slightly higher levels of quality than their proprietary counterparts in most cases. It might seem that the difference in success rates of two softwares doesn't matter if it is something as low as 0.001%. But, every fraction matters when it's about life and death.

Consider the Boeing MAX 737, which made headlines after 346 people died in two crashes. The cause was traced back to a software that Boeing had installed in the flight control system. Flight crashes are not at all common, and this case can certainly be considered an exception. But lives were lost, which cannot be ignored. We need to think - could we have done better? Had the software been open source, it is possible that someone on the internet would have pointed out the issue beforehand and the deaths could have been avoided.

The field of medical science uses digital equipment nowadays, whose softwares demand very high precision and success rates. After all, the goal is to save people and we cannot afford to lose lives just because a piece of software was at fault. Consider the example of pacemakers, which assist the heart to maintain a constant rhythm. If the software of a pacemaker suffers from any fault, it will pose a huge risk to the patient. Truth is that many doctors don't know how reliable the software is. If manufacturers make their pacemaker software open source then independent developers from around the world can audit it and there is a higher chance of critical issues being fixed before a patient ends up losing her/his life. Karen Sandlers, who has worked extensively to develop and improve FOSS, gave a keynote in 2018 where she highlighted this issue and described six years of her failed attempts at acquiring source code for her pacemaker. The keynote can be watched on YouTube at this link.

With the growing reliance on complex closed source softwares everywhere - like driver assist in cars, autopilot systems, medical equipment etc, we can only wonder how much risk our lives are at.

Conclusion

The change must begin from the education sector. This is where students acquire new ideas and form opinions. If we promote the usage of FOSS, the next generation will benefit in many ways. Reliance on proprietary software will only help big tech corporations develop monopolies and follow unethical practices without anyone criticizing them.


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