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Discuss the social impacts and ethical considerations associated with the use of embedded systems.


Teaching Note:

S/E For example, tagging prisoners, surveillance, CCTV, improved safety systems.


Sample Question:


JSR Notes:

The first thing here is to address the concept of "embedded systems". From the examples, we can see that this refers primarily to the sorts of systems that keep track of us. Of these, the only one that could be physically "embedded" would be the tagging prisoners example. A microprocessing chip could actually be embedded in the skin of the prisoner to help keep track of them. What is actually used is lockable ankle tracking devices, which though not physically embedded, are not able to be taken off by the prisoner. But by "embedded systems", for all intents and purposes, we can just think of devices which are either permanently attached to people, or permanently established discretely in an building/area, like CCTV system here at school.

So another way to look at this is embedded systems are IT systems "embedded" within society; ones where we really have no say over their existance, and consequent influence over us.

But whether embedded or not, the key here, with the assessment statement, is that it's about ethical issues. So you need to be prepared to see each from both sides of the story.

Embedded System Description Societal Impacts/Benefits Ethical / Privacy Issues
Tagging Prisoners

Prisoners in the correctional systems of certain jurisdictions have various tracking devices that they wear, either continually, or when they are on parole (i.e. outside of the prison, but still serving their sentence). For example, they could have to wear a tracking bracelet which tracks them with GPS, and requires a key to take it off.

In the future (or now?) these could be RFID-sized pellets embedded below their skin (Radio Frequency Identification), so as to be less obvious to others around them, and less cumbersome when showering and sleeping.

Compulsory life logging could be demanded of prisoners too, either on parole only or within prison as well - making for almost complete and continual surveillance of each individual prisoner.

This allows prison officials and corrections facilities to better and more accurately keep track of prisoners, both while on parole, and also within the correctional facility, and possibly beyond, in the case of escape.

The most obvious social benefit is to keep the general population safer, since the where-abouts of either escaped or paroled prisoners can be kept track of.

And in terms of potential parole violations, there would be certainty of where the paroled person was at the time of a suspected violation, making the ascertation of that situation easier.

It could even benefit the paroled person by making the management of their parole more easy, since face-to-face meetings with parole officers would not be required as much.

The benefits of this system to escapees are, in a word, null.

Tagging prisoners is a complete invasion of privacy in terms of where they choose to be and when.

It is true that when someone is sent to prison they are confined within those walls by definition, but it is still a significant cranking up of privacy invasion if your whereabouts are know constantly and completely, whether on parole or living your life within the prison.

The question is whether or not the greater good to society in general is worth this privacy denial.


Surveillance can take many forms, from CCTV (see next item) to aerial and satellite surveillance, to surveillance of on-line activity, as with the kinds exposed at the NSA by Edward Snowden in 2013. Theoretically, every digital signal in the world, from digital telephone calls to SMSs to Google searches can be intercepted, and stored, and used for various purposes.

UAV sdfasdfasdf asdfasdfsadf

and YouTube video.

The obvious benefit to society is that we are all safer with surveillance. It is worth noting that since September 11th, 2001 there has been no major terrorist attack in America, in spite of constant threat. The recent revelations Mr Snowden of the surveillance that the NSA does not only in America but around the world gives you a glimpse into the extent to which surveillance is used.

If crimes of all shapes and sizes can be stopped at the planning stages, then property and peoples' lives can be saved. The general reduction in crime across much of the developed world in the past decade can thank increasingly sophisticated surveillance techniques in part for this success.

Surveillance is privacy invasion, and though it has been done to one extent or another by people in power over the ages, it is easy to argue that it is fundamentally wrong, particularly when done in a clandestine way.

Here at ISP we sign a form at the beginning of each year stating that we accept that surveillance is being carried out on campus; this includes CCTV, but also the possibility of tracking digital activity as well. And at any place where you are on-line, aside from your own home (hopefully...) you can be likewise monitored. Is that right?? Is that necessary??

Unfortunately, as with many other societal things which just become "normal" and accepted, many people of your generation don't see privacy invasion as anything particularly troubling. But that is arguably more from a lack of perspective and a general acquiescence of society, than from a well thought out and reasonable response. And, worthy of note here is that it tends to be the people in power (whether those with governmental power, or those creating popular culture power, such as companies like Facebook) that benefit most from surveillance and a lack of push back against it.

So a major ethical consideration is to ask how the information gained is used...


(a specific kind of surveillance)

CCTV (closed-circuit television) systems use a series of real and dummy cameras to record activity and dissuade people from anti-social behaviors. Cities such as London, and schools such as ISP rely on blanket coverage to help security and security services.

As with electronic surveillance, CCTV surveillance puts bad guys in a tough spot, and so therefore helps the rest of us good guys not be badly affected by the bad guys.

CCTV systems can be argued to "keep people honest" since they never know just when they will be spotted doing something they should not. Even a simple dummy security camera outside a building will keep burglars and graffiti artists alike away.

Since many CCTV feeds are generally not monitored with precise attention, and in fact become most useful only after a crime/incident, it can be argued that privacy is in fact not being compromised. No guard is ever actually looking at who you are hanging out with in the Upper School hallway, for example.

So if it keeps our streets safer and our hallways more secure, fair enough; a small price to pay. And, actually, it is literally a small price to pay, compared to other means of security, like actual roaming police/security guards.

Privacy invasion is privacy invasion. And being constantly filmed is surely privacy invasion. The fact of the matter is that whether or not every minute detail of what is being filmed of our daily lives is used or examined, it could be. And who is in control of that footage? And why? Furthermore, who is monitoring the monitor??

Surely, privacy issues can be laid aside at the expense of safety and security in many situations. In the last half of the Twentieth Century, when security cameras came of age, it made sense to place them in banks, which through the first half of the Twentieth Century saw hundreds of people killed by bank robbers. But whether or not constant monitoring of pedestrians in Old Town Square Prague, or indeed of you in our hallways, is necessary, is not quite so easy a question.

Improved Safety Systems (Let's do this one together.)    

Note that Sam's and the Compsci2014 notes are a bit off target here. This is an assessment statement about "embedded" systems, not so much about technology embedded in society in general. But check out that info never-the-less.