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Projects that increase online anonymity, such as Tor and bitcoin, allow personal freedom from government oppression but also allow crimes to go unpunished.

As a developer, should I contribute to such projects? Is there a way to enforce that those technologies will not be used for money laundering and child pornography?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by GrandmasterB, mattnz, user16764, Dan Pichelman, MichaelT Aug 27 '13 at 1:43

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
There's a lot of applicable work on this kind of question in the field of ethics, both in practical applications and more philosophical treatments - if you're interested, you might want to do some research into those areas. –  Beekguk Mar 29 '11 at 20:53

5 Answers 5

up vote 29 down vote accepted

This sounds like the principle of double effect. This is when a person takes an action that has two consequences, one positive, and one negative. There are four conditions that are generally needed for the action to be considered moral:

  1. The action itself must be good or neutral. Developing code for anonymity meets this condition.
  2. The bad effect must not me the means by which the good effect is achieved. Anonymity (the good effect) is not achieved by people committing crimes. So again, this is fine.
  3. The intention must be the good effect, not the bad effect. You clearly don't intend for people to abuse your code, and want them to use it for good. So this is okay, again.
  4. The good effect must be at least as important as the bad effect. This is the only one I can see being even questionable in your situation.

In other words, the final question is: Do you think that, overall, more good will be done with software for anonymity than harm? If so, you are in the right to continue to develop it. Personally, I think software for anonymity probably does more good than ill, but I'm no expert.

I don't think the "why not, if you don't, someone else will do it" argument holds water. If developers hold themselves to high standards of ethics, unethical software will be written more slowly and ethical software to defend against it will have a better chance of doing its job. Also, writing unethical code numbs us so we are less likely to recognize future ethical dilemmas and slowly degrades our personal dignity. However, I don't think that this is a case where you need to be concerned; you will be working to make this software for good, with good reason to think it will do primarily good. You are in the right for the same reason that a person making a taser designed for self-defense is in the right. Sure, it could be misused - but in general, it is a tool designed for good.

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This is one of those rare answers that I wish I could upvote more than once. This is, indeed, well-trod ground in the fields of philosophy & ethics. –  Beekguk Mar 29 '11 at 20:52
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I don't think developing an atomic bomb would be validated by those four conditions, and I don't see anyone regretting this decision. –  Jader Dias Mar 30 '11 at 0:02
    
But I choose your answer anyway, because it is deeper than the previous ones. –  Jader Dias Mar 30 '11 at 0:03
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@Jader: Einstein said "I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made" –  André Paramés Mar 30 '11 at 0:46
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@Andre: please include the entire quote to preserve the context: "I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification - the danger that the Germans would make them." [emphasis mine] doug-long.com/einstein.htm –  Steven A. Lowe Mar 30 '11 at 1:56

It's not up to you to ensure that your product is used legitimately. Should Microsoft stop making Windows because people use it for nefarious purposes? I for one would applaud you for contributing to making the internet anonymous.

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Good point but Windows wasn't made with the specific purpose of avoiding the law enforcement. While anonimity is. –  Jader Dias Mar 29 '11 at 19:09
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@Jader Dias That's not true at all. It might enable it, but certainly not created solely for it. The less you know about me the safer I am in all my online and offline transactions. See news.softpedia.com/news/… for a perfect example from the opposite end of the spectrum. –  Aeo Mar 29 '11 at 19:22
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How about looking at it from the point of view that you are simply trying to secure your constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure? I for one believe that law enforcement's job is supposed to be hard. Also, I'm quite certain that if law enforcement has a warrant then they can quite easily work-around these programs. The key being that they have a warrant. Until then, law enforcement should have no ability to monitor activities, at least if you believe in the constitution. –  Dunk Mar 29 '11 at 19:34
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@Jader in many countries and dictatorships, exercising your freedom of speech can get you jailed or worse, in that case is it wrong to avoid such dictatorial 'law'? The number of chinese users using tor to talk freely is much greater than the number of child porn downloaders –  Click Upvote Mar 29 '11 at 19:45
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@Jader: I guess it is a question of do you value your rights more than you value law enforcement's ability to easily do their job. Your answer probably depends on how much you trust government. When I was young and naive, I certainly believed one way. Now that I'm older and wiser, I know definately who not to trust. –  Dunk Mar 29 '11 at 19:49

Tools are neutral. You can't stop progress because someone might misuse a tool.

ADDENDUM: Spreadsheets can be used to plan embezzlement. Video cameras can be used for blackmail. Brooms can be used as transportation for wicked witches. The Internet can be used to carry worms and viri. The bones of saints may be used to swat endangered bats.

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@Snorfus: (a) name one. and (b) obviously the OP is not talking about that –  Steven A. Lowe Mar 29 '11 at 22:47
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@Nick: effective pesticides and area-denial defensive weapons. –  Steven A. Lowe Mar 30 '11 at 1:33
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premptive strike: any weapon can be used defensively, even biological agents. Even "doomsday" weapons can be used as effective deterrents (c.f. mutually-assured destruction). Tools are inanimate objects, incapable of harboring purpose independent of their users. A hammer can be used to build shelters for the homeless, or to smash ants. In either case the hammer is not to blame. –  Steven A. Lowe Mar 30 '11 at 1:37
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@Snorfus: ok, I can almost accept that one. The OP is advised not to write viri, because they really have no good use. They're not much of a tool, either. On the other hand, using a virus to take out enemy computer systems in time of war would seem to be of a certain benefit... worked well in Independence Day ;-) –  Steven A. Lowe Mar 30 '11 at 6:17
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Harmless virus, like Cabir for Symbian, are very effective in demonstrating a security flaw before a harmful virus takes advantage of it. There are other ways, but they can be much more easily ignored by the company producing the product. –  André Paramés Mar 30 '11 at 11:01

Look at it this way, once an idea is out there someone will sooner or later implement it (The nuclear bomb is a good example) because there is a demand and need for such things. Your individual decision will likely not have an important enough effect to stop the development of such projects, because everything does not depend on you. So go ahead and develop as you wish, help popularize it for the kind of purposes you admire and derive what satisfaction you can from working on it.

J. Robert Oppenheimer after the first nuclear test - "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds". He knew the destruction it would cause, but he went ahead with it because he believed in a cause.

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Against nukes they used more nukes. I wonder what weapon could be used against anonimity. Maybe bringing down the internet? –  Jader Dias Mar 29 '11 at 19:23
    
@Jader - I only used the nuke analogy to show the reduced importance of ethics while developing technology and the notion that any useful technology will probably be discovered sooner or later. I certainly did not mean to compare anonymity to nukes. –  apoorv020 Mar 29 '11 at 19:30
    
But I did. lol! –  Jader Dias Mar 29 '11 at 19:44

Your question is similar to those the founding fathers of the United States faced when they decided on the basic constitutional rights to grant the people. Undoubtedly many criminals benefit from such rights as freedom from self-incrimination, the principal of "innocent until proven guilty", the need for probable cause before their property is searched, etc. The founders reasoned that these rights did more good than harm. If you take a similar view regarding tools to protect privacy online, you would be in good company.

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