A software exoskeleton to protect and support citizen’s ethics and privacy in the digital world

Motivation. In their ordinary life, citizens in the digital world continuosly interact with software systems, e.g., by using a mobile device or from on board of a (autonomous) car. These systems are increasingly autonomous in making decisions over and above the users or on behalf of them. Often, their autonomy exceeds the system boundaries and invades user prerogatives. As a consequence, ethical issues – privacy ones included (e.g., unauthorized disclosure and mining of personal data, access to restricted resources) – are emerging as matters of utmost concern since they impact on the moral rights of each human being and affect the social, economic, and political spheres. Besides the philosophical aspects, the way to approach these problems is twofold: regulatory and technical. Europe has recently introduced the GDPR legislation for data protection, Sweden and Germany are at the forefront on the regulation of autonomous vehicles, while a common EU approach to liability rules and insurance for connected and autonomous vehicles is under discussion. The scientific community and some big companies are proposing initiatives to identify problems and establish criteria to develop algorithms and systems that embed autonomous capabilities. As a matter of fact, the digital world is being recognized as potentially hostile to citizens. The initiatives proposed so far go in the direction to make the world less hostile by introducing new laws, from the regulatory side, and transparency and accountability criteria in software development, from the technical side. Regulation is important as well as in-depth insights into the technology. However, we are fully aware that achieving full adherence to regulation and transparency criteria is very difficult or even impossible in practice. We are facing a paradox: human beings are recognized as central actors, the sensitive targets; but they are passive consumers in the digital world, and the power and the burden to preserve their rights remain in the hands of the (software-) systems producers. In the mangrove societies – Floridi’s powerful metaphor – human beings are unprotected in their interactions with the digital world. The great challenge, unattempted so far, is to comprehensively empower them.

The vision – The goal of EXOSOUL is to equip humans with an automatically generated exoskeleton, a software shield that protects them and their personal data via the mediation of all interactions with the digital world that would result in unacceptable or morally wrong behaviors according to their ethical and privacy preferences. The exoskeleton can take a whole spectrum of forms: from customized soft-libraries that the individual may deploy on the machines being used, to a sophisticated software interface that an individual may “wear”, eventually deployed on a body chip. Empowering the users with a personalized exoskeleton will introduce more symmetry of power in the present digital world and will effectively put humans in the center. Exoskeletons development also opens unprecedented business opportunities in the same way open-source software did, which promoted the ethical principles of free software against the monopoly proprietary software producers. The European Union (EU) with its companies can become the scientific and technological leader of future user-driven privacy and ethics systems. Furthermore, bringing back to the user part of the (digital) control helps to solve liability issues in autonomous systems by readdressing responsibility to users according to their specified ethics.

Exosoul is an overarching project funded by the University of L’Aquila. The project is about building a software personalized exoskeleton that enhances and protects human beings by mediating their interactions with the digital world according to their own ethics of actions and privacy of data.