CS 181/181W: Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy, Fall 2018

Course basics

LecturesMonday and Wednesday, 3:00 p.m.–4:20 p.m. in room 420-041 room 380-380C (please note room change)
How to enrollPermission to enroll in CS181 will be granted to as many students as possible (up to 125 in fall 2018). To add your name to the waitlist, please complete a short writing assignment due the first day of class. If you have done this, please access your permission code here.
Sections Section Assignments can be found here
Final examNo final exam
CS181W only181W students will meet with an instructor from the Technical Communication Program to revise and resubmit one of their assignments. Sign up here.
Project Please read the final project guidelines and due dates.
ContactThe course staff can be reached at cs181-fall2018 at cs.stanford.edu.


Keith Winstein
Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Email: Winstein email address
Office hours: Tuesdays, 2–3 p.m., Gates 282 and by email appt

Allison Berke
Executive Director, Stanford Cyber Initiative

Email: Berke email address
Office hours: Wednesdays 2–3 p.m., Encina Hall C134 and by email appt

Course Assistants

Dave Gottlieb
Email: dmg1 at stanford

Emma Pierson
Email: emmap1 at stanford

Ishan Somshekar
Email: ishans at stanford

Liam McGregor
Email: liamm at stanford

Nichelle Hall
Email: nhall2 at stanford

Sarah Radzihovsky
Email: sradzi13 at stanford

Sarah Tollman
Email: stollman at stanford

Anonymous Feedback

Have feedback or want to get in touch with the course staff anonymously? Please use this form to do so. We would love to hear from you!

Content and grading

In the fall quarter, CS 181/181W will focus on teaching (1) how to make well-reasoned, persuasive ethical arguments, and (2) how to make the “right” arguments, consistent with the norms and culture of our discipline. Coursework will include short online writing assignments, written responses to other students, a debate in section, and a quarter-long project. Attendance is required at lectures and sections, and students should attend lectures prepared and ready to be called on. Grades will be calculated as follows:

Participation in lectures10%
Participation in sections20%
Writing assignments40%

Honor code

This is a class on ethics. All students are expected to follow the honor code, to give proper credit for work and for ideas, to act with integrity, and to “take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.” The course staff is happy to answer questions, hypothetical or otherwise, about ethics in academic work and in computer science—it's what this course is about.

Getting permission to enroll in the Fall 2018 version of CS181/CS181W

Fall 2018 is the third in a series of four consecutive terms when CS181/CS181W will be offered at Stanford. This version of CS181 features:
  • A limited-size lecture (125 students at most) run as a large discussion section
  • A major project, where you will design and execute a group project that reaches beyond Stanford (e.g., research and conduct a protect, teach a class at a local high school, interview a major decision-maker, etc.).
  • Extensive student participation, both in lectures (which will include debates, discussions, and cold calling) and in CA-led tutorial sections, both of which will require attendance in person.
  • Learning from case studies in four principal areas:
    • Risk and professional responsibility
    • Surveillance and privacy
    • Gender, race, and participation
    • Hacking and information
  • Writing assignments that focus on short-form persuasive technical memos, as opposed to longer academic writing.

We are asking everybody to complete a first-day writing assignment, due before class on September 24, as a condition of enrolling in CS 181 or CS 181W. Permission to enroll will be granted to as many students as possible, up to 95 in CS181W and 30 in CS181, contingent on completing this assignment and attending the first week of class. To enroll in CS181 or CS181W, please:

  1. Complete the first-day writing assignment.
  2. Attend the first week of class.

We look forward to having you in the class! For students who cannot be accommodated, there will be another (larger) version of CS181 and CS181W taught in the winter 2019 term.

DateDue before classContent

Unit 1: risk and professional responsibility

Monday, Sept. 24 Complete the writing assignment re: Therac 25 (required for entry to CS181/181W). L1 Overview of course, and famous engineering disasters

Wednesday, Sept. 26
  1. If you have completed the introductory assignment, please enroll in CS181/CS181W by using the permission code here.
  2. Please watch at least one of the following documentaries about the Iran Air 655 disaster:
  3. Please sign up for sections here. Due Wednesday, September 26 at 11:59 PM.
L2 Therac 25, Iran Air 655
Monday, Oct. 1
  1. Read “The Trolley Problem” by Judith Jarvis Thomson.
  2. Read the handout “Trolley Problems and Other Difficult Moral Questions” from Iowa State.
  3. Listen to the “Structural Integrity” episode of 99% Invisible, on the Citicorp tower and its structure engineer, LeMessurier.
  4. Review (and please be prepared to discuss) the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers
L3 Ethics background (Slides)

Section assignments have been finalized. Please check your section assignment and attend section starting on Wednesday (you should have also received an email with the same information, please contact us immediately if you did not).

Wednesday, Oct. 3
  1. Read three excerpts from “Metamagical Themas” (1985), by Douglas Hofstadter.
  2. Please complete a short answer online (150 words) before class.
Five hundred dollar coins in a vase
L4 Utilitarianism and weighing competing interests

Oct. 3-5
S1 First section meetings

Monday, Oct. 8
  1. Read the excerpts from Feynman’s “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” about the Challenger disaster.
L5 Decision making under pressure, and ethics background

Wednesday, Oct. 10
  1. Read this collection of articles about Theranos (please do read the whole collection).
  2. Please complete a short answer online (350 words) before noon on Friday, October 12.
L6 Whistleblowing

Oct. 10–12
  1. Finish a project proposal (as detailed in the project guidelines linked on this website) before this section and submit it to your TA

Unit 2: surveillance and privacy

Sunday (Oct. 14) and Monday (Oct. 15)
  1. We will have two screenings of Citizenfour, a documentary concerning Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.
    The screenings are on Sunday, October 14th at 5pm in Gates 104 and Monday, October 15th at 6:30pm in Herrin 175T.
    Please attend one of the two screenings. If you cannot attend either screening, please email the course staff and we will help you make alternate arrangements to see the movie.

Monday, Oct. 15 Please read:
  1. The Illustrated Guide to Law: The Fourth Amendment (ten pages starting with this one)
  2. The Illustrated Guide to Law: Wiretaps (fifteen pages starting with this one)
  3. The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001).
  4. The New York Times article: “Algerian Tells of Dark Term in U.S. Hands” (2006).
L7 U.S. privacy law

Wednesday, Oct. 17
  1. Read the US Government's motion to compel Apple to comply with search assistance for the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.
  2. Read Stanford's amicus brief in support of Apple.
  3. (optional) Read Orin Kerr's How to Read a Legal Opinion
  4. (optional) Read the Supreme Court's 2018 opinion in Carpenter v. United States

Before Friday, Oct. 19:

L8 Apple v. FBI and the encryption debate

Keith's "Bad Attitude Guide to Computer Security" (keynote talk at the 2016 Bay Area Security Research Summit)

Presentation from the Technical Communication Program

Monday, Oct. 22
  1. Please read "The Outside Man" by Malcolm Gladwell about Edward Snowden.
  2. ACLU, Trying to Keep the Internet Safe From Warrantless NSA Surveillance
  3. Tamsin Shaw, "Edward Snowden Reconsidered"
  4. Please sign up for a workshop with a TCP tutor using this form.
    • View Page's slides from class here.
    • View the TCP Guidelines for memo writing here.
L9 Snowden
Wednesday, Oct. 24 L10 Technical surveillance measures, private and public

Unit 3: gender, race, and participation

Monday, Oct. 29
  1. Please read these articles:
L11 Diversity in CS, past and present
Wednesday, Oct. 31
  1. Please read the following:
L12 Biased Inputs: Discrimination in Tech and Law
Monday, Nov. 5
  1. Please read the following:
  2. Please fill out (starting on 11/6) this mid-quarter survey on this class: Survey link
L13 Discrimination due to Tech: Algorithmic Fairness and Disparate Impacts
Wednesday, Nov. 7
  1. Please read the following:
L14 The Google Memo, and: How to make enemies in business without really trying
Nov. 7–9
  1. Turn in Project Midpoint (as detailed in the project guidelines linked on this website) before this section and submit it to your TA

Monday, Nov. 12
  1. Please read:
  2. Please bring your laptops to class!
L15 Biased Outputs (ft. guest lecturer Emma Pierson)

Unit 4: hacking and information

Wednesday, Nov. 14 Please turn in the COMPAS persuasive writing memo (400 words).
L16 Frequentist vs Bayesian Reasoning

Nov. 14–16 Please read:
  1. C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring, 1944
  2. Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, 1973
S7 Responsibility to Society

Happy Thanksgiving! Have a wonderful break!

Monday, Nov. 26 Please read: L17 Data Breaches
Wednesday, Nov. 28 L18 Business Ethics (ft. guest lectures Liam McGregor and Dave Gottlieb)
Nov. 28–30
  • Please prepare a short (~5-10 min) presentation on your project and your findings to give in section
S8 Final Projects

Monday, Dec. 3 L19 Copyright and free software

Course staff ask-us-anything form

Wednesday, Dec. 5
  • 181W students only:
    Please email the memo that you edited after meeting with the TCP to your TA

  • The course staff will select some project groups to present their work!
    Great job this quarter!
L20 Final Projects, Class wrapup