Privacy Engineering, Negative Law, and Ethics in Tech

3 minute read

This week I started attending a Transnational Law & Practice intensive in preparation for my Master’s degree at the University of Washington School of Law. We have been covering the foundational components of the American legal system. One of the things that came up is the role of the U.S. Constitution in the way modern American society operates. The Constitution is the foundational document that forms and defines the American legal system. It’s also one of the few national constitutions that is composed exclusively of negative law. Negative law expressly limits what the government is allowed to do as opposed to positive law which affirms what the government must do. There is no express responsibility of what the U.S. federal government has to do.

This brings up an issue with national issues that require a larger response like privacy regulation. The government has to be able to justify that it has the right to regulate privacy through one of the pre-defined channels mentioned within the constitution. One of the common ones is the regulation of interstate commerce. If you read the consent decrees that have been issued to Facebook, Google, and others, you’ll observe that the angles are often from consumer protection and misrepresentation to customers and users.

Shifting our perspective, how does this affect privacy engineering and other forms of risk engineering? Often times it’s tempting to answer these by restating the negative law-inspired perspective but where does that place our responsibilities? The goal of privacy engineering is to adversarially look at data processed within a system and figure out how to protect that data from misuse and users from harm. If we take the perspective of what we should not do, it provides a more difficult place for an engineering team to operate from. Every constraint that’s added increases the complexity of the design and implementation process.

Building a product or feature works much better when we are able to affirmatively state what we want to do and what we care about. “What should our users have?” is an easier question to answer than “What should we not do?”. It also makes it easier for users to understand what they can expect from us. The second question is inherently adversarial, it creates combative dynamics when we engage with teams and puts us in the position where we have to be The Knights Who Say Nee. If we can approach building products from an affirmative perspective, then it makes it much easier for users to understand what our values are, it makes risk engineering a lot more friendly process, and makes it easier to explain to regulators the approach we’re taking.

So understanding that an affirmative approach to product building makes the most sense, that leads us to the importance of declaring what our values are and what we believe users should have. In other words, what ethical guidelines are we going to follow when building our products. It’s the aggregate of what we choose to define at the team, org, and company level. Privacy engineering and risk engineering now shifts to the point of ensuring that we stay consistent with those values throughout our efforts and initiatives.

Law itself is not a replacement for morality, it’s an expression of a superset of what we believe are normative behaviors in society. Similarly we have the opportunity to more proactively state what we believe in and help influence those societal values. How do those values manifest in our engineering decisions? Looking within your own projects and teams, how do your group’s values express hemselves in what you build? That’s what privacy engineering tries to determine when analyzing a product, what are the values being expressed in this product and are they compatible with what we believe users should be entitled to? Because of our unique position as technologists, we have a lot more power to declare affirmatively what we care about. It’s up to us to determine how those values are expressed and the way that we affect our world around us.