Schedule for CSC 299:
Social Implications of Computing
This schedule will evolve over the course of the semester.
Check back frequently!
NB: Readings and assignments are listed on the date by which
they must be completed, not the date they are assigned.
Unless otherwise noted, assignments are due before the beginning of
class on the listed day.
- Wed. Jan. 17: Introduction and
Brainstorming of Topics
- Mon. Jan. 22: Changes Brought on by
Computing and the Internet
Reading: Textbook Chapter 1
Find an article in the “reputable” media (an outlet that
researches its stories, and is quick to acknowledge and correct any
factual errors) that appeared in the last month and that addresses
social implications of computing. Write a one-page (~300 word)
summary of/reaction to the article, and post to the class discussion
board on Blackboard.
Articles already appearing on the articles page don’t count.
To facilitate browsing by fellow students, please post your essay as
in-line text, rather than an attachment.
- Wed. Jan. 24: Privacy
Reading: Textbook Sections 2.1–2.2
- Mon. Jan. 29:
Reading: Textbook Sections 2.3–2.4
- Wed. Jan. 31:
Reading: Textbook Sections 2.5–2.7
Pick one of the following topics and address it in an essay of at least
Try to stake out a position, but be sure to
discuss arguments for both sides. Are there useful
non-cyber analogies? Identify the negative and positive rights
involved. Which side do you think is stronger? Why?
- [exercise in previous editions of the book] Advocacy groups have
sued certain companies because blind people cannot use their
websites. The suits argue that the Americans With Disabilities
Act requires that the sites be accessible. Should a law require
all business and government websites to provide full access for disabled
- Kim Dotcom was the founder of the now-defunct megaupload.com,
alleged by US authorities to have “generated more than $175M in
criminal proceeds and caused more than $500M in harm to copyright
owners.” In 2010, Dotcom fled Hong Kong for New Zealand,
where he has been fighting attempts to extradite him
to the US (he lost the latest round just over a year ago).
In 2013 he launched mega.nz, which offers what it characterizes as
secure, encrypted, anonymous cloud storage. Is Dotcom a hero or a
criminal, or something in-between? To what extent should
governments (in the US or elsewhere) hold people responsible for
(merely?) facilitating illegal activity?
Please generate PDF (not .txt, .doc, .rtf, .dvi, or any other
format), and submit your assignment through
- Mon. Feb. 5:
- Wed. Feb. 7: Freedom of Speech
Reading: Textbook Sections 3.1–3.3
- Mon. Feb. 12:
Reading: Textbook Sections 3.4–3.7
Learn about privacy on Facebook. Read the
in its entirety.
If you are a member of Facebook, examine your settings for
Update these settings if they strike you as inappropriate.
Explain the principles you use to decide what should be visible
to whom—both by default and for individual posts.
If you are not a member of Facebook, and prefer not to join, describe
the settings you would choose if you were a member, or would recommend
to a friend.
(You may need to look over a friend’s shoulder to see what the options
Again, explain the principles behind your choice.
Finally, do an Internet search to find information on one or more of the
Summarize the controversy, discuss your position on it, and explain how
it was resolved.
The length of this assignment is up to you: take as much space as you
need for a clear response. Please submit your essay, in PDF
format, via Blackboard.
- Mon. Feb. 14:
- Mon. Feb. 19: Intellectual Property
Reading: Textbook Sections 4.1–4.3
- Wed. Feb. 21:
Reading: Textbook Sections 4.4–4.6
“Whistleblowing” has a long tradition prior to the Internet,
but modern technology has substantially increased both its feasibility
and its potential impact.
Clearly it can be a powerful force for good.
It also has the power for substantial collateral damage.
As an example of whistleblowing in the digital age, read up on the
history of Wikileaks, and the scope of its activities since its founding
Drawing examples from this history (but
without necessarily passing judgement on any specific case(s)),
discuss the underlying ethical issues in an essay of at
least 1000 words. As usual, bolster your
arguments with facts from reputable sources, cite those sources
appropriately, and turn in PDF.
Questions you may wish to consider include:
Is the public disclosure of private information, without permission,
ever ethically acceptable? Ethically obligatory?
What ethical obligations, if any, does a whistleblowing site have to
verify the accuracy of the information it posts?
What ethical obligations, if any, does it have to redact or delay the
disclosure of information to minimize any potential harm that may
What obligations does a government have to take action if a
whistleblowing site breaks its laws? What should be the response of the
international community when the laws of different nations conflict?
In general, what should be our reaction to whistleblowers who break the
law in order to expose evil things?
Must they be punished for the law breaking, or does the value to society
of the disclosure ever mitigate the offense?
- Mon. Feb. 26:
Guest appearance by Reid Cunningham, Intellectual Property Attorney,
(Prof. Scott out of town)
- Wed. Feb. 28: Biotechnology and AI
Class led by Lisa Jin.
(Prof. Scott out of town)
- Mon. Mar. 5: Crime and Security
Reading: Textbook Sections 5.1–5.4
In December of 2015, the FBI acquired an iPhone 5C that had been used by
one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, CA.
Under the All Writs Act of 1789 (yes, 1789), a US magistrate judge
ordered Apple to create a new version of iOS and upload it to the phone,
allowing the FBI to unlock it by brute force. Apple refused.
The standoff—but not the underlying legal principle—was
resolved when the FBI managed to hack the phone with the help of a third
party whose identity has never been officially disclosed.
Read up on the San Bernardino stand-off, the historical background, the
technical issues, and the ongoing controversy over similar unresolved
cases. In an essay of at least 1000 words, discuss what you have
learned and address the following question: should the law require
companies like Apple to engineer “back doors” into their
devices that can be used by law enforcement to circumvent encryption and
other privacy controls?
As usual, bolster your arguments with facts from reputable sources, cite
those sources appropriately, and turn in PDF through Blackboard.
- Wed. Mar. 7:
Reading: Textbook Sections 5.5–5.7
- (Mar. 12–14: spring break)
- Mon. Mar. 19: Presentation of Project
Choose a topic for your end-of-semester term paper and post a
one-to-two paragraph description of it to the discussion
Blackboard. A list of possible topics can be found HERE.
Note that you are not limited to topics on this list; anything that
addresses the impact on society of computing and the Internet will
(Your completed paper, due at the end of the semester, should be
about 4000 words [12–15 pages, depending on formatting]).
- Wed. Mar. 21
Guest appearance by Jason Fickett, Supervisory Special Agent, FBI Cyber Task Force.
- Mon. Mar. 26:
Guest appearance by Iman Abid,
Director, Genesee Valley chapter, New York Civil Liberties Union.
- Wed. Mar. 28:
Guest appearance by Eric
Fredericksen, UR Associate Vice President for Online
- Mon. Apr. 2:
- Wed. Apr. 4:
Guest appearance by Mary Ann Mavrinac,
Neilly Dean of UR Libraries and President of the Association of Research Libraries.
- Mon. Apr. 9:
- Wed. Apr. 11:
- Mon. Apr. 16:
- Wed. Apr. 18:
- Mon. Apr. 23:
- Wed. Apr. 25:
- Sun. Apr. 29:
Discuss, in a paper of approximately 4000 words, a topic of your choice
related to class material.
Keep in mind that the focus should be on social implications of technology
more than on the technology itself. At the very least, your paper
should comprise an insightful overview of the topic; ideally, it
should state and defend a position or point of view. Be sure to cite
sources for nonobvious facts, expert opinions, or verbatim material.
(Your bibliographic entries should provide sufficient information, when
printed on paper, for a library user to find the original source easily.
Note that Wikipedia and similar sites are not original sources,
and that URLs, by themselves, are not acceptable bibliographic entries.)
One last request: to make it easier for me to add annotations, please
use a line spacing of at least 1.5.
Note: Students taking the course for upper-level writing credit will
receive their papers back no later than Sunday evening, May 6.
They will have until Sunday evening, May 13, to submit revisions.
That will give me less than 48 hours to submit grades and writing
cretification for graduating seniors. In other words, there is
no slack in this schedule, so please don’t ask for an
extension unless you’re prepared to argue for an incomplete.
- Mon. Apr. 30:
Last day of class.