By Laurence McNaughton for Hack Reactor
In a world that relies on increasingly sophisticated software to stave off the constant threat of chaos, software engineers are often the unsung heroes that keep everything running smoothly. Here are five ways that software engineers are not only defending the status quo with their coding skills, but making a positive difference.
1. Spotting fake photos to stop the spread of disinformation.
Since the invention of photography, propagandists have been doctoring images to sway public opinion and advance their own agendas. But techniques that once required laborious hours of darkroom sleight-of-hand can now be quickly accomplished with off-the-shelf software. Ubiquitous digital cameras and easy-to-modify computer files have left us drowning in a sea of fake photos.
Hany Farid, a professor who teaches introductory computer programming at UC Berkeley, wants to expose the fakes. He has devoted his software skills to developing detection tools to analyze not only images, but videos as well. His software scans for the telltale signatures of manipulated photos, helping users spot computer fakery and fight back against disinformation, online harassment, and propaganda.
2. Rooting out race and gender bias in software algorithms.
Facial recognition software has great potential to increase security, prevent fraud, and help law enforcement track down dangerous criminals. But it’s only effective if the algorithms are accurate and unbiased. When MIT student Joy Buolamwini discovered that face tracking software often identified women with dark skin as being men—while it seldom made errors identifying men with light skin—she knew there was a problem.
Buolamwini, who wrote her MIT thesis on racial and gender bias, founded the Algorithmic Justice League to call attention to the bias built into the AI services created by companies such as Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft. She advocates the creation of ethical and inclusive technology and encourages governments and companies to be more judicious in the application of facial recognition software until we can safely eliminate bias from the software.
3. Protecting stalking victims from spyware.
Most domestic abusers stalk their targets through their smartphones. According to a University of Toronto study, 54% of abusers use so-called stalkerware to spy on their victims, and there's very little anyone can do to stop it.
This type of privacy-invading spyware is often pitched as an app to keep track of children and employees. But it is also used by abusive men to target women, frequently ex-partners. These hidden apps can be installed on the victim’s smartphone by anyone with physical access to the device. It gives the user full access to the target’s phone, allowing 24/7 real-time spying.
It's difficult to combat stalkerware, since many manufacturers of antivirus software refuse to identify it as malware. Worse, flawed security practices on the part of the manufacturers can lead to a breach of all data acquired by the app, exposing the target to identity theft as well as abuse.
That's starting to change, thanks to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit based in San Francisco. They are hard at work to eliminate stalkerware as a tool of harassment, abuse and violence. Because of those efforts, several major companies have now promised to classify stalkerware apps as malware, empowering victims to protect themselves.
4. Defending democracy from cyber threats.
In the United States, more than 99% of votes are counted or cast by computers, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But computerized voting systems are vulnerable to cyber threats that can disrupt or hijack the voting process. A CSIS survey of cybersecurity experts found that 81% believe Russian cyberattacks are the number-one threat to U.S. elections.
In Austin, Texas, a group of software engineers and cryptographers decided to stop taking chances with democracy. They sat down together to design a safer voting system from scratch. Utilizing built-in safety features, automatic audits, and sophisticated technologies such as homomorphic end-to-end cryptography, the STAR-Vote system may represent the best defense against malicious election interference from hostile nation-states.
Because of the efforts of these software engineers and other members of the team, there has been interest this year from DARPA and Microsoft in developing a working prototype to protect voters and keep democracy more secure in the future.
5. Helping people get affordable healthcare.
The healthcare.gov website was created under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act and launched on the first day of October 2013 to much fanfare. Almost immediately, it crashed.
A tangled nest of technical glitches kept the website down for weeks afterward, which led to intense criticism of the Obama administration. Even before that high-profile failure, the website project had already gone tens of millions of dollars over budget. It was so far behind schedule that there hadn't been enough time to test the system before it went live.
Shortly after the fumbled launch, the White House sent in a new management consultant and an entirely new team of troubleshooters, including a complement of software engineers. Just weeks before the end of the year, they resuscitated the website and got it up and running again. More than 8 million people were able to sign up online for health insurance, beating original expectations by a wide margin.