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

Course basics

LecturesMonday and Wednesday, 3:00 p.m.–4:20 p.m. in McMurtry Building 102 (Oshman Hall)
SectionsSection assignments for 2018
Final examNo final exam
CS181W only181W Students: please sign up for a workshop with the TCP here. Then, please submit your revised essay before March 12.
Project Please read the final project guidelines and due dates.
ContactThe course staff can be reached at cs181-2018 at cs.stanford.edu, or you can use our anonymous feedback form.


Keith Winstein
Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Email: Winstein email address
Office hours: Mondays 1-2 p.m., Gates 282

Allison Berke
Executive Director, Stanford Cyber Initiative

Email: Berke email address
Office hours: Wednesdays 1:30-2:30pm and by email appointment, at Encina C134

Course Assistants

Dev Bhargava

Email: devb at stanford.edu
Sections:Wednesdays 10:30-11:20 and 11:30-12:20 in Thornton 211

Amartya Das

Email: adas17 at stanford.edu
Sections: Fridays 1:30-2:30 and 2:30-3:20 in Lathrop 298

Danaë Metaxa

Email: metaxa at cs.stanford.edu
Sections: Wednesdays 1:30-2:20 in Gates 104

Austin Poore

Email: hapoore at stanford.edu
Sections: Fridays 10:30-11:20 and 11:30-12:20 in STLC 118

Anna Wang

Email: annaxw at stanford.edu
Sections: Thursdays 2:30-3:20 and 3:30-4:20 in 200-230

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 winter 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 final 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.

DateDue before classContent

Unit: risk and professional responsibility

Monday, Jan. 8L1 Overview of course, and famous engineering disasters

Wednesday, Jan. 10
  1. Complete the writing assignment re: Therac 25 (required for entry to CS181/181W).
  2. Please watch at least one of the following documentaries about the Iran Air 655 disaster:
  3. Please sign up for sections here. Due Friday, January 12th at 11:59 PM.
L2 Ethics background (Slides), Therac 25, Iran Air 655
Monday, Jan. 15 no class (Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday)
Wednesday, Jan. 17
  1. Read “The Trolley Problem” by Judith Jarvis Thomson.
  2. Read the handout “Trolley Problems and Other Difficult Moral Questions” from Iowa State.
  3. Please complete a short answer online (150 words) before class.
L3 Artificial intelligence and trolley problems

Section assignments have been finalized. Please check your section assignment and attend section starting on Wednesday (students with Wednesday sections should have already received an email giving the location—please contact us immediately if you did not).

Wednesday/Thursday/Friday, Jan. 17/18/19 Please read the final project guidelines and due dates. S1
Monday, Jan. 22
  1. Read this collection of articles about Theranos (please do read the whole collection).
  2. Listen to the “Structural Integrity” episode of 99% Invisible, on the Citicorp tower and its structure engineer, LeMessurier.
L4 Whistleblowing
Wednesday, Jan. 24
  1. Read three excerpts from “Metamagical Themas” (1985), by Douglas Hofstadter.
  2. Fill out this form to let us know which movie screening you will attend.
  3. Attend one of the following Citizenfour movie screenings:
    • Thursday 1/25, Gates 415, 4-6pm
    • Saturday 1/27, Gates 104, 12-2pm
    • Sunday 1/28, Gates 104, 12-2pm
    • Sunday 1/28, Gates 104, 6-8pm
L5 Decision making under pressure

Unit: surveillance

Thursday/Friday, Jan. 25/26 S2
Monday, Jan. 29
  1. Read the excerpts from Feynman’s “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” about the Challenger disaster.
  2. Read Rogaway's “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.”
  3. Read "The Outside Man" by Malcolm Gladwell about Edward Snowden.
  4. (Optional—may be upsetting) Watch the reaction of NASA engineers at Mission Control to the Challenger disaster
  5. (Optional) Read about the Colin Blyth paradox that was explained in class on Wednesday.
L6 Challenger debrief, and Snowden
  • Please sign up for a workshop with a TCP tutor using this form.
  • View Mary McDevitt's slides from class here.
  • View the TCP Guidelines for memo writing here.
Wednesday, Jan. 31
  1. Please fill out an end-of-first-unit evaluation of this course using our anonymous feedback form. What did you like? What did you not like? What would you like to see more or less of? Do you feel the class is succeeding at its stated goals? Why or why not?
  2. Please read “Algerian Tells of Dark Term in U.S. Hands” (2006).
  3. Read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001).
L7 U.S. privacy law (Slides)
Thursday/Friday, Feb. 1/2 S3: No section
Monday, Feb. 5 L8 Apple v. FBI and the encryption debate

Wednesday, Feb. 7
  1. Please turn in the Snowden persuasive writing assignment (600 words)
  2. Please read these articles:
L9 Technical surveillance measures, private and public
Thursday/Friday, Feb. 8/9S4

Unit: gender, race, and participation

Monday, Feb. 12
  1. Please respond to a classmate's essay about Edward Snowden (200 words).
  2. Please read these articles:
L10 Diversity in CS, then and now
Wednesday, Feb. 14
  1. Please read these articles:
  2. Please bring a laptop to class if you are able; we'll be digitally collecting responses for part of our discussion.
L11 Biased Outputs (ft. guest speaker Emma Pierson)
Thursday/Friday, Feb. 15/16 S5
Monday, Feb. 19no class (Washington’s birthday)
Wednesday, Feb. 21
  1. Please read the following:
L12 Biased Inputs: Discrimination in Tech and Law
Thursday/Friday, Feb. 22/23S6
Monday, Feb. 26
  1. Please write a persuasive memo to the California Supreme Court on the topic of algorithmic sentencing and bail.
  2. Please read the following:
L13 Biased Inputs: Google Manifesto; Wikipedia (ft. guest speaker Luke Faraone)

Unit: hacking and information

Wednesday, Feb. 28 L14 The Hacker Ethic

Arabic proverb: إذا تخاصم اللصان ظهر المسروق (If two thieves quarreled, what was stolen emerges.)

Thursday/Friday, March 1/2 S7
Monday, March 5
  1. Please respond to a classmate's essay about algorithmic sentencing and bail (200 words).
  2. Please read the following:
L15 Vulnerabilities and disclosure
Wednesday, March 7 Please read:
  1. C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring, 1944
  2. Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, 1973
L16 Lying with statistics
Thursday/Friday, March 8/9 Projects due (in section)S8 Last section
Monday, March 12
(no Winstein office hours today)
  1. CS181W only Please submit your revised essay.
  2. Please submit a 400-word argument in favor of or against net-neutrality regulations.
  3. Please read the following:
L17 Net neutrality
Wednesday, March 14L18 Best project presentations