Technically Right Conference 2020

“The technological solutions proposed to address the pandemic pose critical questions that implicate complex legal, scientific, and ethical issues.” -Margaret Hu, Professor of Law and International Affairs at Penn State

As the global pandemic surges and technological responses proliferate, questions of data ethics, privacy and security move to the center of conversations about pandemic surveillance. The Technically Right program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, in co-sponsorship with InternetLab, Pennsylvania State University’s Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS), and Penn State Law’s Policy Innovation Lab of Tomorrow (PILOT), hosted an international conference November 12th and 13th, where experts from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, and the UK convened to discuss the ethical challenges we face in combating COVID-19.

Professor Hu—whose tenure as Visiting Professor in Ethics at the Kenan Institute from 2018-20 led to the establishment of the Technically Right program in the spring of 2019—underscored the “importance of having international conversations around these issues.”

The need to balance individual rights with efforts to promote the public good in regard to data collection, usage, and storage—not only during the pandemic, but following its wake—served as the argumentative thread that gave continuity to the discussions throughout the conference. Technologies that currently track the spread of the virus raise privacy concerns, and the ways in which information is used and stored put people at risk of potential harms—including usage beyond original intent, such as by law enforcement to target undocumented immigrants in the US who participate in digital contact tracing.

The legal implications of the pandemic are far reaching, especially in terms of the regulations that govern data privacy and security. Els De Busser, Assistant Professor of Cyber Security Governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands, highlighted how member states of the EU, the “perfect students in human rights class,” have “chipped away at the rule of law and human rights” in attempting to stop the virus.

Emerging tracking technologies were seen as “silver bullets in the early days of the pandemic,” noted Natalie Ram, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. However, these technologies have not caught on as much as expected, most notably because of privacy concerns, particularly with regard to ownership of data, the amount of time in which data is stored for, and potential uses beyond pandemic surveillance.

Among the novel uses of these technologies as apply to tracking the spread of the virus, Professor Ram remarked how they could potentially be used for such applications as “fining people for not social distancing,”

As for the effectiveness of digital contact tracing, in order for these technologies to do what they are designed to do, adoption by at least “60% of the population” in any given country needs to happen, noted Maria Soledad, Adjunct Professor in the Faculties of Social and Communication Sciences at the National University of Córdoba (Argentina).

Jolynn Dellinger, Stephen and Janet Bear Visiting Lecturer and Kenan Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics went so far as to argue that we all have an ethical obligation to share our personal data, as a degree of surveillance is essential to defeating this pandemic. However, she also argued that we must pay particularly close attention to how data is used, misused, and abused, especially in relation to vulnerable and marginalized populations. “We don’t want participation . . . to create another arena of harm.”

The conference focused on frustrations and challenges raised by pandemic surveillance and the technologies that make such surveillance possible, but it also brought into focus the more general issues of data ethics, privacy and security that confronted us long before the pandemic and will be with us long after the pandemic. While this moment is an uncertain one, participants agreed that with attention and collaboration, answers to these challenges are within our collective reach.

Technically Right at the Kenan Institute for Ethics advances ethical tech policy and innovation through interdisciplinary research, coursework for undergraduates and graduate students, and convening of scholars and practitioners.

Design Sprint Generates Vision for a Wellbeing Economy

Over 60 participants—including Duke students, community advocates, civil engineers, and graphic designers—met virtually over the course of two weeks (May 11-22) as part of the Design Sprint to a Transformative Future—an event sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics in support of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll), and co-sponsored by the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, the Hart Leadership Program, and the Ormond Center. Small teams used human-centered design principles to create prototypes for a resource hub that could be used by communities around the world seeking to promote wellbeing economies.

“[WEAll] is an international organization trying to bring together and organize people interested in building a future focused on wellbeing of people and planet, rather than continue with a model based on growth, extraction, and profit,” said Dirk Philipsen, Associate Research Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute. Philipsen organized the Design Sprint along with Duke students Alex Nichols, Jessie Xu, Matt Wisner, and Neha Vangipurapu. “One problem almost all [people] run into: not having ready access to the best ideas, networks, and models. Our attempt with the Design Sprint was to begin conceptualizing what such a resource hub or toolkit could look like.”

Teams were asked to imagine what a transition to a wellbeing economy would look like on the local level, and were encouraged to be creative in conceptualizing the methods for connecting users with the information, resources, and networks essential to making this possible. Specifically, they were prompted to envision a community in which “every girl can ride her bike safely and joyfully to a good public school.”

“As the Design Sprint progressed, it became quickly clear how each team took a different approach to address the same prompt,” noted Jessie Xu, a rising junior studying public policy and economics. “They asked many questions, and our job as organizers was simply to say yes—to give participants the creative agency to dream of how they would transition toward a better society.”


In designing platforms, participants were instructed to create prototypes within a very short period of time that would not only meet the specific needs of users, and do so in innovative and groundbreaking ways, but also provide a general architecture that could be utilized by anyone interested in building a wellbeing economy.

At the end of the two weeks, participants submitted video presentations of their prototypes. After having reviewed and evaluated each team’s presentation, organizers selected three teams as finalists: Wellbeing Exchange (Michael Cao T’23, Hannah O’Sullivan T’21, Lindsay Oluyede, PhD Student, UNC); The Lineage (Margot Armbruster T’22, Becca Schneid T’23, Taylor Plett T’21); and Global Goals Quest (Sam Hummel T’03, Megan Richards E’22, Savannah Norman T’21, Jake Jefferies T’22, Zachary Guffey PPS’20/MPP’21). Finalists were given the opportunity to present and have their work assessed by a panel of experts, who provided both a sense of the importance of participants’ work and constructive thoughts and guidance on how to develop their ideas and build off them.

“I decided to sign up . . . because I believe we need to build a future designed for people and for the planet; through this experience, I got to envision a different way of living by brainstorming creative ideas and learning about potential solutions,” Christina Lee, a rising sophomore studying public policy, said.

Experts included Amanda Janoo (Knowledge and Policy Lead at WEAll), Isabel Nuesse (Engagement and Content Lead at WEAll), Usman Tufail (Digital Lead at WEAll), Jillian Johnson (Mayor Pro Tempore of the City of Durham), Jennifer Hill (Executive Director at Circular Triangle), Thad Austin (Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Congregational Engagement at the Ormond Center for Thriving Congregations and Communities), and Kashmiri Schmookler (Communications and Community Engagement Coordinator at the Ormond Center).

“I was excited to build community around the ideals of an economy that can work for all of us and came away thinking about the encouragement we got to ‘build’ — to go beyond just critiquing existing institutions in order to construct something better to take their place,” said Margot Armbruster, a rising junior majoring in English.

When asked what’s next for the project, Alex Nichols, a Master of Public Policy candidate at Sanford said, “Our plans going forward include working with a diverse group of people to create an advanced prototype of the resource hub,” adding that the prototype will “hopefully allow us to garner further interest from larger entities with shared objectives, and to create a coalition toward developing a full platform.”


To find out more about the prototypes submitted for the Design Sprint, and to learn how to get involved, please contact Jessie Xu (jessie.xu@duke.edu).

Students, Faculty and Industry Experts Consider Solutions to Ethical Issues in Emerging Technologies

Congratulations to the finalists of the Spring 2020 Ethical Tech Competition!

Undergraduate Category

Winner: Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda (“TikTok’s Physiognomic Bubbles and Algorithmic Bias Amplify Messages of Hate”)

Notable Mention: Ishaan Kuman, Megan Richards, and Dev Seth (“A Privacy-Centric Contact Tracing Framework”)

Graduate Category

Winner: Andes Paciuc (“Smart Guns”)

Notable Mention: Wen Zhou (“Overweighing Underrepresented Groups to Combat Algorithmic Discrimination”)

Duke students from across the University—including undergraduates from computer science, biomedical engineering, public policy, history, and philosophy, and graduate students in law, engineering, history, cultural anthropology, and political science—competed in the Spring 2020 Ethical Tech Competition. Individuals and teams submitted memos that identified and articulated solutions to ethical issues in emerging technologies. A panel of faculty and practitioners judged the submissions and chose winners, who received monetary awards and the publication of their proposals.

“When our security feels threatened, as it does now,” said Merritt Baer, Principal Security Architect for Global Accounts at Amazon Web Services and a judge in this year’s competition, “we must double down on our ethical values, as they are core to that which makes our world worth the fight. In essence, these students shared …[ideas] for how to change the world for the better.” In addition to judging this year’s competition, Baer gave a TechTalk last spring at the Kenan Institute for Ethics on careers in information technology.

Other contest judges included Stuart Brotman (Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law/Beaman Professor of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program in Washington, DC), Davi Ottenheimer (Vice President of Trust and Digital Ethics at Inrupt), and Ken Rogerson (Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy and Director of Graduate Studies for the Sanford Master’s of Public Policy Program).

“I have been teaching and researching about technology policy for more than 20 years,” Professor Rogerson said. “Each year, more and more students see the intersection between technology, society and their own work and interests. This is not simply a good thing. It is absolutely necessary. Being a judge for this competition gives me a chance to see creative ideas in tech policy and get to know the young people who have them. I am more optimistic about the future when I do this.”

After a thorough review process and much deliberation, the judges, under the advisement of Kenan Visiting Faculty Margaret Hu, selected sophomores Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda as the winners of the undergraduate category, and law student Andres Paciuc as the winner of the graduate category.

Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda’s proposal— titled “TikTok’s Physiognomic Bubbles and Algorithmic Bias Amplify Messages of Hate”—explores the ways in which TikTok’s recommendation algorithm inadvertently promote the spread of harmful content on the platform. Edelson and Vattikonda argue that by providing users with information on how recommendation algorithms determine the content they receive and by altering the design for how users interact with their feeds, designers could reinvent the app based on democratic principles that allow users to more fully direct their experiences.

“Niharika and I were inspired to write our piece about algorithmic bias within TikTok after we realized that so many of our peers had turned to the platform- and thus its content recommendation algorithm- for entertainment during quarantine,” Edelson said. “Amidst the current pandemic, our society has grown more tech-dependent than ever before. As school, work, and social interaction are being reimagined to fit within the confines a screen, I believe that it is more important than ever to be engaging in conversations about technology and ethics, particularly when it feels as if we have been stripped of much choice in the matter.”

Andres Paciuc’s proposal provides an overview of how smart gun technologies could lessen the number of youth suicides and accidental gun deaths, and addresses how political barriers and negative public perceptions of these technologies could be overcome in order to be implemented successfully.

“While smart guns are unlikely to prevent mass shootings, homicides, and adult suicides, they may be useful in preventing youth suicide and accidental gun deaths,” Paciuc said. “Even though these types of deaths do not comprise the majority of gun-related deaths, preventing gun-related deaths in children and teenagers is still a worthy public health goal.”

The Technically Right program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics was established in 2019 to create an intellectual space in which students, faculty, staff, and community members can come together to think critically about the ethical issues and challenges that we currently face and will continue to face in the future, and to advance ethical tech policy and innovation through interdisciplinary research, coursework, conferences, and student competitions.

In addition to the finalists of the undergraduate and graduate categories, the judges identified an honorable mention in each category: Ishaan Kumar, Megan Richards, and Dev Seth for the undergraduate category, and Wen Zhou for the graduate category.

For more information about the program and to learn about future opportunities, please visit https://kenan.ethics.duke.edu/technically-right/.

Faith and Politics: Mitt Romney’s vote to convict

Dean CrowleyHow do we understand Mitt Romney’s speech on the floor of the Senate and his decision to vote to convict Trump? How did he decide to vote against the GOP party line? How should people engage faith-fully with politics? Undergraduates were invited to join Dean Jenny Wood Crowley in a conversation on how Romney’s Mormon faith influenced his decision, and what we can learn.

In light of Senator Mitt Romney’s decision to vote in favor of convicting President Donald Trump for abuse of power, Dean Jenny Wood Crowley sat down with undergraduate students for a conversation about faith and politics, sponsored by Religions and Public Life at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Together, they explored the ways in which Romney’s Mormon faith influenced his resolve to vote against party lines to impeach the President, as well to address broader questions with regard to the place of religious expression in our current political system.

Dean Crowley sought to contextualize Romney’s speech by placing it into its proper historical and theological context. She emphasized the importance of time and place in LDS theology, and how, historically, LDS members have believed that it was only in the United States with its Constitution—especially its guarantee of freedom of religion—that their church could take hold to become the thriving religion that it is today. Since its founding, those within the church have understood the Constitution to be divinely inspired, and it is through this lens that we can begin to understand Romney’s use of religious reasoning and his appeal to providence. As Dean Crowley pointed out, constitutional issues for Romney are in fact religious issues, and that Romney believed it his duty to uphold the sacredness of the Constitution through his support of impeachment.

This laid the groundwork for a lively discussion about public displays of faith in politics. One student opined how faith unquestionably informs the political commitments of many politicians, and in the case of Romney, it is his faith that makes him who he is. Another student wondered whether Romney was trying to package his remarks in a way that was not only appealing for LDS members, but for Christians more broadly, whereas another questioned if he was making a strategic political move. The conversation turned towards presidential elections, and how a candidate’s faith is not as important for voters as it once was, though it is apparent that candidates still do evoke their faith. Dean Crowley thoughtfully worked through these questions and others with students, and acknowledged that the relationship between faith and politics is truly complicated, but expressed hope that students will continue to think about Mitt Romney’s actions, and what this means for the current political system.