Ethical Considerations for Software Engineers

The next president of the United States showed a willingness to violate historical norms while campaigning, and there's little evidence that he has any moral compass - the examples of this are legion, one of the worst is him cutting off medical treatment to his sick nephew over a legal dispute. His kids are going to run his businesses (with his name on them) while he is in office. He has also asked for security clearances for them. This is at best an unusual arrangement and at worst opens the door to massive corruption.

During the election the Russian government hacked and leaked the DCC's emails, then hacked and leaked the email of Hillary Clinton's campaign chief. Trump denied Russia's involvement publicly at a debate even though he'd been briefed on it. Trump has taken many sides on many issues but praise for Putin and Russia has been consistent. Trump just promoted a paid Russia Today commentator to his National Security Adviser. It is likely that Russian (and Chinese, Iranian, etc) hacking of US government offices and US companies will be tolerated over the next four years, especially if it benefits Trump and hurts his political allies.

It's important to note these attacks won't come out of the blue. It's not sunny one day and the next there are men in suits asking for data center access. There will probably be some pretext - a foreign war, a terror attack, something else, that'll be used to justify the unethical request. It's easy to imagine "Of course I will identify the racist thing!" and much harder in the moment, or in a context that's surrounded by fear.

Note also that if you are an engineer, these requests may come outside of normal channels. Last year, Yahoo fielded a request to search all emails for a given term. Yahoo's C-level executives went around the security team and asked engineers to implement this directly, at an extremely low level. Alex Stamos, Yahoo's CSO, resigned when he found out. You should be prepared to do the same. Don't expect unethical requests to show up on the backlog - it'll be a meeting you're pulled into with the CTO, or a man showing up at your apartment and threatening your immigration status unless you insert a backdoor.

Employees (and especially engineers) will be the key people to push back. Customers aren't always aware of shenanigans, and management can be under more pressure to make their company succeed. Especially in Silicon Valley, most employees have multiple job options, which gives us unique leverage. Every employee at a Silicon Valley company should be prepared for unethical or illegal requests, and (where appropriate) be prepared for state sponsored attacks, from the US government or another one. Every employee should be prepared to put pressure on management, and the legal team, to deny requests.

Here are some examples of ethical problems you might run into. I'd encourage you to have these discussions internally before you get put in the situation discussed below, and lay out bright lines for everyone in the company to follow, to make it clear where you stand and what's not acceptable. I would also encourage you to ask about these when you interview.


The pledge at has covered this in more detail but here are some good questions to ask in an interview:

  • Do you encrypt messages that go from datacenter to datacenter? The NSA has spied on this data in the past.

  • Do you offer end-to-end encryption of messages sent between users?

  • Do you destroy sensitive data if it's not needed anymore? Do you destroy user data if they delete their accounts?

  • What is your policy to responding to requests from the US government and other governments?

  • Do you have data that would be valuable to foreign governments, or embarrassing to customers if it was made public? What's your strategy for protecting that data against sophisticated nation states?

  • Would you take money from the Trump Organization or its affiliates in exchange for an explicit or implicit guarantee of "protection"?

Venture Capitalists / CEO's

  • Donald Trump's children or their representatives may ask for a share in your fund, in exchange for favorable treatment from the federal government. Would you accept such a request? Note they may ask after they have successfully applied this approach to other companies.

  • You may be approached for an investment by a company or entity that has ties to the Russian government, or ties to the Trump Organization. This may be accompanied by a threat of harassment from the federal government, hacking, DDOS, or other. Would you accept the investment?


  • By default you store a company's entire conversation history, including DM's. Private information like this is easy to distort and take out of context. Russians hacked from the DCC and trickled emails to the press, with devastating effects. Should the default behavior for a Slack installation be to store a company's entire history?

  • What efforts are you making to educate users about the risks of storing their entire conversation history on Slack? What are the highest-value targets for hackers who'd like to compromise the Slack network?

  • What progress have you made on end-to-end encryption for Slack messages?

  • Is there a way to store the data where a compromise would not allow a hacker to access every message for every company in your system? Say you had three different datastore designs.


  • Your companies store a massive amount of data on where users have been and where they are going. If exposed, this data could be used to embarrass people - why is this married Congressman requesting a ride from outside a gay bar, or a hotel in the middle of the day?

  • What options do users have for removing their trip history from your site?

  • What employees can access user data, and under what circumstances? What tools do you have for anonymizing data that's not viewed in aggregate?

  • Many Trump voters cited a feeling of being left behind as a reason to vote for him. Uber drivers are 1099 contractors, which means you are prohibited from providing them with training. What responsibility do corporations have to put their workers on an upwards career path?

  • Many of your 1099 contractors get health care from the government, or on government-mandated exchanges. These exchanges are being threatened by Republican governors in many states, and Republicans in Congress. What responsibility does Uber have to work for healthcare for its drivers?

  • Your legal page says "We generally require a valid request issued in accordance with applicable law before we can process private requests for information." What does "generally" mean in this context? If China passes a law that says "we can ask for everything," would Uber comply?

  • You've taken money from Saudi Arabia's public investment arm. Would you be say no to that money if the Saudi Arabian government asked for data on customers as a condition of the deal?


  • You collected millions of dollars in revenue from the Trump campaign in 2016. If Trump acts like an authoritarian in office, or severely restricts the rights of minorities or immigrants, will you support his campaign again in 2020?

  • Does Stripe receive requests from law enforcement? What is your policy for responding to subpoenas?

  • If Stripe processes a credit card payment, who can see the record of that transaction? Who should be able to see it, and/or remove it?


  • Do you encrypt messages passing from datacenter to datacenter?


  • Historically newspapers and other media organizations have had a strong understanding of their role in promoting democracy and enforcing accountability from the government and our business leaders. Facebook has become a very important part of how people figure out what's going on in the world around them. What responsibility does Facebook have to ensure people have a mostly-correct view of the world? Should Facebook have a role in promoting democracy and in rejecting authoritarianism?

  • Facebook tells advertisers that their ads can change users' minds. But Facebook also insists that the algorithms it uses to show information didn't sway the US election (or overseas elections). Which is it?

  • Has Facebook responded to queries from governments on the lines of "Muslims/blacks/immigrants living in state/city/county X"?

  • Facebook's current policy is to censor/restrict content according to local laws. If a law was passed to restrict speech in the United States, would Facebook comply?

  • Does Facebook encrypt data being sent from datacenter to datacenter?


  • What line would Donald Trump have to cross for you to suspend or ban his account?

In sum

You are the most likely agent of change at your company. A lot of stuff may happen in the next four years and it's good to think and declare now, when things are relatively sane, what you'll agree to do or not do, because in the aftermath of another 9/11, or similar event, you may be asked to do a lot.

I've laid out my own consulting ethics guide here.

Liked what you read? I am available for hire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are heavily moderated.