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Ask Slashdot: Developer Responsibility When Apps Might Risk Lives?

timothy posted about a year ago | from the gps-makers-have-been-trying-to-kill-me-for-years dept.

Cellphones 100

First time accepted submitter bashaw writes "What ethical responsibilities do software developers have in determining the role that mobile devices take in our lives? As performance increases, size decreases, and the only limitation is the software available, mobile devices have expanded into new areas of our lives for which they were not designed. This raises the ethical question of who decides what software is available, and therefore what role these devices should take. I am a software developer at the Canadian Avalanche Centre. We recently issued a warning about mobile avalanche search applications that are marketed as avalanche rescue systems. Three smartphone applications are presenting themselves as economical alternatives to avalanche transceivers, the electronic device used by backcountry users to find buried companions in case of an avalanche. The applications are not an adequate replacement for an avalanche transceiver for many reasons, and we are concerned about the use of this software in lieu of a specifically-designed avalanche transceiver. When it is a question of public safety, does the onus fall on the developers, a government agency or the users themselves?"

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Developer or publisher? (3, Interesting)

gnasher719 (869701) | about a year ago | (#45241209)

Unless someone shows otherwise, the apps mentioned seem to do what the software developers who created them made them do. But the publisher of these apps tries to sell them for uses that they are not fit for. That's the publisher's problem, not the developers'.

Re:Developer or publisher? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241275)

Using dynamically typed languages should be a capital crime.

Re:Developer or publisher? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241389)

I don't remember posting the last statement, but that's exactly something I would have posted, had I posted it.

Re:Developer or publisher? (0)

spiffmastercow (1001386) | about a year ago | (#45241447)

Using dynamically typed languages should be a capital crime.

Unfortunately the variable was set with a lower-case varaint and the program threw an exception.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1, Insightful)

Qzukk (229616) | about a year ago | (#45241283)

Unless someone shows otherwise, the apps mentioned seem to do what the software developers who created them made them do.

Does the app cause the phone to broadcast on the international avalanche transceiver standard 457kHz band? No? Then enjoy hearing the rescuers crunch by overhead while they look for you.

Re:Developer or publisher? (0)

gnasher719 (869701) | about a year ago | (#45241391)

Does the app cause the phone to broadcast on the international avalanche transceiver standard 457kHz band? No? Then enjoy hearing the rescuers crunch by overhead while they look for you.

You have problems understanding what you read, right? Did the developers ever try to make the app broadcast? No. Did they ever claim it could do so? No. Did the publishers claim it could do so? Yes. So whose fault?

Re:Developer or publisher? (5, Informative)

rtb61 (674572) | about a year ago | (#45241561)

Well technically speaking, it would be likely the fault of the specific Government Consumer Protection Authority, whose jobs it is to monitor claims about products and if it finds them false, seek fiscal redress for the risk it puts the public too and ensure the public are warned. The end consumer should never really be put in this position because reality is the only find the failure when they try to apply the product and seeking legal redress can be all too late. I find it all too annoying to get product after product that fails to achieve the levels of performance claimed and really like the idea of an agency that puts the breaks on this, by bankrupting deceitful company after deceitful company as well as those companies executive teams.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45242469)

I'm generally against the governments doing things like that but I agree this is one time some controlling authority steps in and initiates legal action to make sure the apps are not marketed as something they are incapable of. It would be like me marketing a bungy cord as a replacement passenger restraint system (seat belt) for cars that had them cut either by vandalism or by emergency personnel after a crash.

Given the information in the submission and one of the linked files, these apps should be required to specifically indicate they are not avalanche rescue system substitutes.

Re:Developer or publisher? (0)

dbIII (701233) | about a year ago | (#45243253)

Congrats. You are on the first step to recovering from libertarianism.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

slick7 (1703596) | about a year ago | (#45244589)

Unless, of course, you are Monsanto and you are not responsible for your products.

Re:Developer or publisher? (2)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about a year ago | (#45241623)

The ones who lied? Honesty isn't a 100% ironclad defense, there are things you can do with full disclosure that are still unethical; but if I program 'tweet_while_U_die' a program that uses your accelerometer to detect a probably-fatal vehicular collision and then tweets about it for you while you bleed out, I'm in poor taste; but hey, it is what I say it is.

If somebody brands it as 'Personal Safety Notifier Pro' and insinuates that EMS dispatch is somehow going to find you based on this behavior, I'd like to see them charged with negligent homicide each time that fails to happen.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45242517)

If somebody brands it as 'Personal Safety Notifier Pro' and insinuates that EMS dispatch is somehow going to find you based on this behavior, I'd like to see them charged with negligent homicide each time that fails to happen.

They would probably be sued out of existence by a few wrongful death lawsuits before anyone prosecuted them. The thing is, you can make claims, you can obfuscate claims that lead people to believe something not directly implied, but when it is a matter of life and death and the later prevails, you more then likely end up with a courtroom watching a widow and their children cry while some lawyer is telling his client to stop acting like subtle deception is ok if you do it right and profit from it.

Someone is going to have a bad day.

Please, the you was not you specifically, it was a general you in which I could make a point.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

dbIII (701233) | about a year ago | (#45243265)

They would probably be sued out of existence by a few wrongful death lawsuits before anyone prosecuted them

That takes a lot of time and a lot of money from people that care about the dead. If the faulty product only kills people who are not extremely rich or the manufacturers have deep pockets (eg. Union Carbide) the threat of being sued is of little or no consequence.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45243425)

In Ohio for instance, the law requires the executor of an estate to file any probable wrongful death lawsuits on the behalf of the estate. If they fail to do so, the legal heirs can go after the executor of the estate for whatever they think the wrongful death claim would have brought.

Most law firms will flip the bill for the lawsuit and take a percentage of the suit if won. But it might not be up to the people that care about the dead. It may be something the law requires even if it does cost a lot more of the inheritance than they will recover.

This is why I laugh at libertarians (-1, Troll)

dbIII (701233) | about a year ago | (#45243469)

Playing around in the civil courts is a very slow game for rich people and is no impediment to the utter bastards that just want to take the money and drive off slowly any time in the next two years, pretend to be bankrupt, then do it all over again. When life is on the line you need people to band together to deal with those that threaten it. Such a thing is called government. That sort of thing you also need to run that civil court system the libertarians love so much but think runs on magic.

Have you guys ever stopped to think that perhaps an unemployed refugee from Soviet Russia on welfare really knew fuck all about America when she wrote her crap?

Re:This is why I laugh at libertarians (1)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45243509)

I think you are confusing me with someone else. I'm not necessarily a libertarian and I have already stated in another thread you have replied to that I think government should regulate it.

However, the begger in Soviet Russia doesn't need to know anything about the US. Soviet Russia should have the laws in place too. This system is internationally recognized the world around and is in use in Russia too. But a lawsuit over international persons or shell companies only gets complicated, not impossible.

You are right, people can game the system, fake bankruptcies and all that. But that would only embolden government to take action for criminal charges and the app stores would likely end up banning the apps before then to avoid vicarious liability.

Re:This is why I laugh at libertarians (1)

dbIII (701233) | about a year ago | (#45248515)

Do you really know so little about your hero Ayn Rand that you totally missed the reference?

Re:This is why I laugh at libertarians (1)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45249747)

Yes, I do know so little about Ayn Rand. What is your point? I already said I'm not the libertarian you think I am.

Re:Developer or publisher? (3, Interesting)

John.Banister (1291556) | about a year ago | (#45243009)

While I generally agree with you, I think it's worth looking at the example given by electronic chart programs. They all make you click on a "The prudent mariner will have properly updated paper charts" notice on startup. Once they learned about the publisher's advertising, the developers could make a "notice to idiots" one has to acknowledge on startup saying something like "99.9% of phones made in 2013 don't have the hardware to broadcast on the 457kHz avalanche transceiver band, and this app doesn't trigger that radio in any phones that do have that capability." You could make an option to turn the notice off buried in a setting submenu that idiots won't make the effort to find, but then it'd be good to make enabling the notice part of "activation" to circumvent a publisher selling the program with the notice disabled by default.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about a year ago | (#45244791)

You'd be lucky to have signal in avalanche country in the first place, much less through the snowpack.

Re:Developer or publisher? (1)

pspahn (1175617) | about a year ago | (#45246561)

I theorized about this exact type of app about five years ago. First off, there would be no requirement to have cell data accessible. You'd simply create an ad-hoc network with WiFi and/or Bluetooth and the devices will communicate over that, using signal strength and GPS coordinates as a locator.

Ultimately, though, the same drawbacks I considered years ago are the same ones mentioned in the review by the CAC, battery life being the most problematic.

After deciding that an avy beacon app would simply not work robustly enough, I thought that the same app could be rebranded into something I called a "Party Beacon", which you could use to find your friends at a concert when they might not be paying attention to their phones to answer your texts of "where are you?" Obviously, the app no longer involves life or death situations, and you've just gained a much wider potential market.

So, there you go avy beacon app makers, there's your out. You're welcome.

Users (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241219)

App did not warn me about tornado. [xkcd.com]
Seriously, people have to take responsibility for their own choices.
We're too litigious nowadays; we ought to set the standard that grownups are required to think.

I agree (1)

Alex Szczybor (3409815) | about a year ago | (#45241317)

People themselves should be responsible for choices they make. In this scenario a smartphone app could act as a supplement but not a replacement for an avalanche tracker.

Re:I agree (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241697)

App developers of today are the same type of people that wrote those "funny" Windows programs that spread via email in -95. That's about as seriously I take the smartphone business.

Re:I agree (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about a year ago | (#45243279)

how would people know that it's not a proper safety device though?

I mean, you have to know something technically to know that he phone can't transmit on the required frequency. and all the consumer knows is that it has gps, glonass and lte and all kinds of fancy shit words on it.

(having 2100, 1800, 900mhz etc detectors on the rescuers would be a great idea though!)

Re:Users (0)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about a year ago | (#45241751)

Thinking for yourself would interfere with your police state. Move to another country if you don't want to be surrounded by dumbasses.

Re:Users (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45242179)

In which country has anyone ever not been surrounded by dumbasses?

Re:Users (2)

CannonballHead (842625) | about a year ago | (#45245331)

You buy car. The car says it has brakes. The car only has brakes that work, though, when you are going less than 20mph.

Bummer for you, I guess. You should have known better. You should take responsibility for your own choice to buy that car! Why didn't you get under there and check the brakes thoroughly first? What, you want to sue? Everything they said was completely true, the car has brakes...

Admittedly, this is a silly and exaggerated example, but I personally have no doubt that a lot of advertising does this.

The problem isn't necessarily that people are stupid now. The problem is that things are more complex. It's not like most of my purchases are ... well, animals or food.

And even food is hard, now, since we do such complex things to it and with it... heh.

All (4, Informative)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about a year ago | (#45241221)

does the onus fall on the developers, a government agency or the users themselves?

Yes.

Re:All (1)

tompaulco (629533) | about a year ago | (#45242013)

First, a developer with any morals would not develop such an app (and it sounds like they didn't). Second, the discerning public should know that their phone is not capable of broadcasting on the 457 kHz band, by government regulation, that their phone is not even warranted for use in temperatures where an avalanche might be a possibility, and that if they were in an avalanche, the phones stray droplet of water detector would instantly render it useless.
If and only if all of those things fail, then maybe the government should step in, but probably not even then. Instead, we should probably just allow people to quietly cull themselves from the gene pool so that the next generation will be better capable of surviving.

Re:All (2)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45242569)

One of the problems is that how do you know those facts? Of course you are not a dummy and looked into it a bit and applied knowledge you probably already possessed, but have you done so before this story came about?

Well, suppose you have looked into it and when you did, you saw an app for your phone that said it could send help if ever in an avalanche. If you were an average consumer, would you know based on that exchange that the app couldn't be a substitute? Forget what you know about phones and think like a normal person who's geekiest moment might be watching The Big Bang Theory or reruns if Weird Science.

I know people who are contract lawyers, who build million dollar homes, who see millions of dollars pass through their hands daily as an investment banker, and a lot of other people who would otherwise seem intelligent by most standards but can't figure out the reason their computer isn't turning on is because they kicked the power strip with their feet and unplugged it or switched it off. One thing I learned a long time ago, what is obvious for some will not be for all. People are just different. It is what makes the world an interesting place.

Sometimes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45242723)

It depends.

Darwin is not dead yet (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241237)

Despite the attempts of the statist liberals.

Sure (1)

Herkum01 (592704) | about a year ago | (#45241257)

As soon as executives are financially responsible for the money they lose or swindle from customers.

The Onus (1)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | about a year ago | (#45241261)

You'll probably hear many arguments, either for the developers (which I fully support), to the user (buyer beware), and even some for government enforcement.

I think in this case, only the first two are true:

Developers, I think, have a responsibility of accurately representing the capabilities of their software and not artificially inflating the capabilities of the software (or a phone) past what is 100% true and accurate. However, users also burden the responsibility of doing at least some basic research and taking a common sense approach as to what is truly adequate for a purpose. The government shouldn't interfere at all in an ideal situation, however that will never exist because people - if unrestrained - tend toward what we'd call uncivilized behavior because of lack of threat of immediate consequence.

Re: The Onus (2)

Esther And Gretel (3398837) | about a year ago | (#45241295)

The developer of the software has no say in release schedules, etc. You're way off dude...C level execs are the ones responsible...and the ones making all the money.

Re: The Onus (1)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | about a year ago | (#45241319)

People can refuse to engage in something they know is unethical or immoral, to hell with C level execs. Refusing to do it will come with consequences, but I'd rather have an empty belly then a troubled conscience.

Re: The Onus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45243301)

OK, you are fired! Eat that!

Re: The Onus (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#45243391)

So what happens when you write a marco polo game using GPS and then a month later you see that some jackass in marketing has claimed it is the perfect way to find someone buried in an avalanche?

Certainly an increasing danger. (5, Insightful)

Holmwood (899130) | about a year ago | (#45241307)

On the one hand, we can crack down hard on anyone who tries to even hint at some medical or safety purpose for a particular app. On the other we can be wild and free-booting and allow people into precisely the sort of trap that the poster outlines.

These apps may well be better than nothing (though they are not tested in any meaningful sense, nor are they compliant in any meaningful sense), but to the extent that they give a false sense of security, they are dangerous.

Personally, I lean towards crystal clear disclosure, and, in Canada, and restrictions on marketing. I do not favour an outright ban, since I could see that as having unpleasant consequences.

Look forward ten years. Suppose my smartphone has a ~90% reliable software and sensor package to tell me if I'm suffering from a heart attack. Suppose also that I'm part of a demographic group that by gender, age, fitness, weight, diet is highly unlikely to be suffering one. (There have been cases before where software has successfully diagnosed heart attacks in situations where physicians didn't believe it -- consider the case of psychologist Helen Smith a fit 37 year old woman who came close to dying since humans didn't believe she could be having a heart attack).

It would not make rational sense in that case for me to purchase a $1000 bespoke medical device to monitor me, but a $5 app might make sense even if it wasn't as reliable.

Similarly if I ski only occasionally and in areas highly unlikely to suffer an avalanche, it might make sense for me to not purchase a transceiver. (For those who say they'd spend anything to protect their lives, even on extraordinary low probability, I suspect you may have some irrational optimizations in your life.)

Offering consumers informed choice seems key; if they are marketing their apps as the equivalent of Avalanche transceivers, that clearly is not informed choice.

Similarly, I'd pressure Google and Apple and Blackberry to come up with a common standard for fine grid device location that these apps could use.

The OP raises some interesting points; I still come down somewhat on the libertarian side of things.

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241375)

I do not favour an outright ban, since I could see that as having unpleasant consequences.

Such as? These apps literally enable the ignorant to get themselves killed, as you point out, by giving them a false sense of security. Furthermore, they endanger the well informed and well prepared who may risk their lives trying to recover them.

On the other hand. . .?

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (1)

Holmwood (899130) | about a year ago | (#45241465)

I do not favour an outright ban, since I could see that as having unpleasant consequences.

Such as? These apps literally enable the ignorant to get themselves killed, as you point out>

Did you actually read the rest of my post? Blanket regulations and bans tend to have unintended consequences and can be quite sweeping in effect. I gave a specific example of a situation (future cardiac monitor app) that might be quite beneficial for a certain segment of the population to have access to, even if it was less reliable than a dedicated device.

Such an item, if one were to blanket-ban apps based on medical and safety claims, would be unavailable in highly regulated countries, likely to the detriment of many people.

I further noted the tradeoff of skiing in an area with negligible avalanche possibilities and implicitly argued ("pressure Google and Apple and Blackberry to come up with a common standard for fine grid device location") that that might well be better than nothing.

As for well-informed, again, I explicitly noted that informed choice is key. Marketing in a misleading fashion, in this safety-critical sense, is not acceptable. As I wrote (if you had read it): "I lean towards crystal clear disclosure, and, in Canada, and restrictions on marketing."

That said, I will again repeat myself: I lean towards more informed choice for consumers and citizens rather than less. The OP makes excellent points suggesting to me that regulation and restriction on marketing as well as a strong push for standards are appropriate. He or she does not persuade me that a blanket ban is appropriate, and certainly you do not given that you do not even appear to have read let alone attempted to understand my position.

Best,
-Holmwood

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (1)

JoeMerchant (803320) | about a year ago | (#45241377)

There's a lot of regulatory framework in place already for medical devices, medical device software, etc. Apps that are trying to be medical devices should be following those rules (they're really more like laws than guidelines...) I'm sure lots of other life-critical areas have similar structures in-place.

Generally speaking, if you follow those best practices, you're doing what's expected and should be in the clear if you've actually done everything you are supposed to. Of course, it's all very fuzzy and lawsuits can be cheaper to settle than fight no matter how righteous you've been.

If you are putting people's lives on the line with your software and you don't know about these things, you probably should find out. The penalties can be pretty stiff even if nobody actually gets hurt.

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (1)

Holmwood (899130) | about a year ago | (#45241547)

This is a very good point. In the past I have developed in the avionics and old-school telecoms area. (Half an hour unscheduled downtime permitted in 40 years, in the latter case). The former tends to be life-critical, the latter not far off.

I am very aware of the kind of requirements that medical software and devices require though have very deliberately steered well clear of that market.

It is my belief that developers should be educated, ethical, but that there is also a place for apps, even devices that are not medically certifiable as long as they are carefully and ethically marketed. (The OP's example seems to indicate examples that are possibly none of the above).

An example from today; I use, to great help, a device from Fitbit to monitor my sleep. It's less accurate than the $1m sleep lab a colleague (internal medicine, specializing in sleep apnea) runs, but it's good enough to tell me that I got a bad night's sleep even when I am not consciously aware of having done so.

I argue that inexpensive, reasonably accurate apps are considerably better than nothing, provided that the user is well-informed. We need an area that isn't done to death by the FDA, provided claims are appropriate.

In the current wild-west of app-stores, especially on Android, this does not appear to be the case.

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#45243553)

There does need to be a middle ground. Arguably, the current situation is already in ethical trouble because it prevents people who can't afford or otherwise access certified equipment from accessing good enough or better than nothing. Because of that, they get nothing.

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (1)

Dunbal (464142) | about a year ago | (#45241685)

consider the case of psychologist Helen Smith a fit 37 year old woman who came close to dying since humans didn't believe she could be having a heart attack

Or my case, where I actually did die (ventricular fibrillation) because humans didn't believe I could be having a heart attack. At 28. They sure changed their tune quickly though when I hit the floor without a pulse.

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (2)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about a year ago | (#45241825)

I think that there is one additional factor to consider (that does strongly affect this case; but might be weak or nonexistent in others): In the case of an "Avalanche Transceiver", that's not a generic description of any radio beacon designed for avalanches, it's a fairly specific set of standardized minimum capabilities and interoperability characteristics, recognized by both hardware vendors and significant mountaineering organizations.

Even the insinuation that you are talking about a similar thing edges pretty close to misrepresentation, because of the degree to which the existing device has been codified.

In a situation where the app's function is novel, and there is either no consensus at all, or a consensus so obscure as to be confined to some very specific subgroup, it would be much easier to make 'almost as good and a lot cheaper' style claims without edging on seriously misrepresenting the situation.

If the market for avalance transceiver devices was either a total incompatible clusterfuck, or simply didn't exist, my position on these would be 'the more the better', since the implicit promise would be less, and the existing 'standard of care', so to speak, much closer to being equivalent. As it is, though, they would have to market...very...carefully to not be treading on thin ice in terms of implicit misrepresentation.

Re:Certainly an increasing danger. (1)

Kjella (173770) | about a year ago | (#45243941)

Except it seems these apps are rather battery-intensive in any automatic trigger mode and you don't want to have to manually activate them, meaning you'll probably only turn them on if you think you might possibly need them. Second since they're totally non-standard, they only do any good if you've agreed with your travel companions to use this as your avalanche search app, any other bystanders or rescue crews will look for a transponder if you have one or search based on visual observation if you don't, they won't spend valuable time searching through a bunch of odd apps on the off chance you have one and has activated it. Both of those issues indicate to me that the only times you'd use it is when you should have a proper avalanche transponder, after all they're not totally random you need a certain terrain and conditions as prerequisites.

I sort of agree with you in general though, if I'm out exercising with a pulse belt and my heart rate just goes crazy like I'm having a seizure or a stroke then why shouldn't the phone alert 911? It's not like you need a medical degree to call 911 in the same situation either. On the other hand, I'd be extremely careful in marketing such a feature because can it for example tell the difference between a user removing the belt and a heart going full stop? Probably not. If you sell something like these avalanche apps, they should come with a big fat red warning label saying "This is not a avalanche transponder, it does not broadcast on the standard rescue frequency and your smart phone is not designed to function as one with respect to range, accuracy, robustness or battery life. It may still aid your rescue if no transponder is available, but it is no replacement for one."

This reminds me a little of the distinction between medication and nutritional supplements, sure supplements can have beneficial effects on your health and reduce or make certain symptoms go away, but the moment you claim a medicinal effect you've crossed a big boundary. The same goes for this transponder, the moment you say it's fit for a particular use and that is to aid in a search and rescue operation you're taking on a whole lot of liability. If this app has a bug and for some reason points you in the entirely wrong direction, I'd say you have a pretty good case for criminal charges no matter what the EULA may or may not say. It's like disclaiming any liability on the brakes of your car, it simply can't be done no matter what kind of legalese you put in the contract.

crack down on false claims (1)

Chirs (87576) | about a year ago | (#45241321)

but let them go through otherwise.

As long as they're claiming "better than nothing" and not "as good as an avalanche beacon!" then I have no real problem with it.

"Better than nothing" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241401)

Is a parachute with a giant hole in it better than no parachute?

Re:"Better than nothing" (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241507)

Is a parachute with a giant hole in it better than no parachute?

Interestingly, for round parachutes a parachute with a hole in the apex is better than a parachute with no hole at all.

As for your question, yes a parachute with a giant hole is better than nothing. It still slows you down and depending upon what you land upon that slowing may make a difference. There are occasional incidents where parachutists survive parachute failures.

Re:"Better than nothing" (1)

Vairon (17314) | about a year ago | (#45241581)

That depends.
How big of a hole in relation to the surface area of a parachute do you consider giant?

Better than nothing ? (1)

perpenso (1613749) | about a year ago | (#45241407)

We recently issued a warning about mobile avalanche search applications that are marketed as avalanche rescue systems. Three smartphone applications are presenting themselves as economical alternatives to avalanche transceivers, the electronic device used by backcountry users to find buried companions in case of an avalanche. The applications are not an adequate replacement for an avalanche transceiver for many reasons, and we are concerned about the use of this software in lieu of a specifically-designed avalanche transceiver.

Assuming they work to some degree its probably a matter of whether the buyer was accurately informed about their performance, not what the level of performance actually is. To be honest I expect that the users of such apps are those who would otherwise go into the backcountry with no device at all, are the apps better than nothing at all?

Re:Better than nothing ? (1)

O('_')O_Bush (1162487) | about a year ago | (#45243039)

"To be honest I expect that the users of such apps are those who would otherwise go into the backcountry with no device at all, are the apps better than nothing at all?"

I had thought this too, thinking 'blah blah article presents false dichotomy... blah blah implying users would otherwise buy very expensive avalanche beacons etc'. Then I looked up the price of a real avalanche transceiver.

They are cheap. Much cheaper than most of the skiing gear (even most of the clothing) that back country skiers wear. In my mind, that means no excuse to choose an app over a real device. Maybe as a redundant system and backup, but not as a substitute, and neither should there be any suggestion at all that the app is in any way an appropriate substitute.

That is, not suggest they are better than nothing at all, but instead, at best, an enhancement to having something.

Certification Process / Branding (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241419)

Is there a certification process for these devices within the Search and Rescue domain? if not, there should be. The applications would readily fail any certification process for adverse conditions. (I'm sure they are useful for locating your buddy at the top of the hill, or having a beer; on a good day; but for safety? No).

Lacking Official Critiera (1)

deathcloset (626704) | about a year ago | (#45241427)

I would say the onus falls upon the user. In the absence of accepted standards or regulating entities I think it's buyer beware man. On the other hand, If you have standards dictating required operational parameters, then it's quite obviously the developer or designer I think. My post is over simplified and ignores the hardware/software integration question, but I think I'm on the right track. At least by slashdot standards. I welcome argument and rectification.

Re:Lacking Official Critiera (1)

sumdumass (711423) | about a year ago | (#45242863)

The Avalanche Rescue System actually does have a predicated standard that is recognized internationally. Supposedly, you purchase one anywhere, regardless of the manufacturer, and it is completely comparable anywhere in the world that uses the system.

That being said, I do think this is a government regulation type thing in at minimum, they should be required to clearly disclaim any possibility of being a substitute for the real thing.

Imagine you were at a pool or lake and there was a flotation device hanging on a pole near by that said life saving emergency device. Now suppose you fell in and injured yourself to the point that keeping your head above water was very difficult and someone grabbed that device and tossed it to you. Now suppose when you grab it it falls apart and doesn't have the buoyancy you would expect from a real life saver flotation device that is US coastguard approved because it was a cheap replica sold to someone to add to the ambiance of the location. Now suppose that person thinks you will be ok holding onto the flotation device when he see you grab it and immediately runs to get someone to help.

Caveat emptor could mean a death sentence if someone thinks you or they will be safe and you are not. An app like this or even a device like this must make it clear that it is not the real thing or a comparable substitute for the real thing. If that is present and the buyer decides to give it a try, it is buyer beware. If it isn't available and readily known, then it is misleading, dangerous, and possibility fraudulent. And I think that these apps will end up being removed by lawsuits over wrongful death, aggravated injuries or something before any criminal charges will be filed. When a widow and their children are crying in court stating how the deceased thought it was just as good because of the marketing and the defense is claiming the guy should have looked into what he was purchasing better or he should have read the EULA which has the disclaimer hidden in it, its going to be hard to see how this ends in the app maker's favor.

A short anecdote (4, Interesting)

arielCo (995647) | about a year ago | (#45241431)

The headline reminded me of a story in a book of mine:

When Brunel's Ship the SS Great Britain was launched into the River Thames, it made such a splash that several spectators on the opposite bank were drowned. Nowadays, engineers reduce the force of entry into the water by rope tethers which are designed to break at carefully calculated intervals.

When the first computer came into operation in the Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam, one of the first tasks was to calculate the appropriate intervals and breaking strains of these tethers. In order to ensure the correctness of the program which did the calculations, the programmers were invited to watch the launching from the first row of the ceremonial viewing stand set up on the opposite bank. They accepted and they survived.

Re:A short anecdote (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241631)

They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don't make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?

Re:A short anecdote (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45243387)

Hangmen don't typically undergo the procedure themselves beforehand, either.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Re:A short anecdote (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45246755)

Surgeons get a shitload of high pressure training.

Re:A short anecdote (2)

tapi0 (2805569) | about a year ago | (#45245749)

Not to take anything away from the principle underlying the anecdote, but SS Great Britain was launched at the Bristol Docks with nothing of great note occurring (apart from getting wedged in the lock leading to the Avon)

Re:A short anecdote (1)

arielCo (995647) | about a year ago | (#45249357)

Yes, WIkipedia tells me that the Great Britain was floated out. It may have been the 1898 battleship HMS Albion, whose launching washed ~200 people standing on a rickety temporary "bridge" at a slipway on the opposite bank, of which 34 drowned.

Do you know anything about this "controlled launch by tether breaking"?

Re:A short anecdote (1)

tapi0 (2805569) | about a year ago | (#45252263)

I think you're right on Albion, which was a big disaster which hurried in a few H&S changes. I can't find any reference to the controlled break of tethers - but it's one of those things that I remember being described to me so either one of those things that gets passed along but never actually happens, or nobody deems it worth mentioning. I'm with you on this one though. Incidentally, I found this http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2013/06/this-is-what-happens-when-you-launch-a-massive-ship-sideways-and-dont-get-out-of-the-way/ [gizmodo.co.uk] which is another good example of the forces at work in a launch, and you can understand how a gantry piled high with people could easily get torn away.

Shit rolls down the stairs... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241441)

... lands on lowest step, nuff said.

A Great Post in a Long While (1)

oldhack (1037484) | about a year ago | (#45241467)

This is the best story/discussion topic in a long while here on slashdot. I hope many chime in with their serious thoughts.

That is what disclaimer are for... (1)

HaeMaker (221642) | about a year ago | (#45241469)

"13. Note on Java support. The software may contain support for
programs written in Java. Java technology is not fault tolerant and is
not designed, manufactured, or intended for use or resale as online
control equipment in hazardous environments requiring fail-safe
performance, such as in the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft
navigation or communication systems, air traffic control, direct life
support machines, or weapons systems, in which the failure of java
technology could lead directly to death, personal injury, or severe
physical or environmental damage.

Re:That is what disclaimer are for... (1)

master_kaos (1027308) | about a year ago | (#45242447)

yup, company I work for publishes medical books for veterinarians and we have a disclaimer saying we are not responsible. We put it in our mobile apps as well.

Depends. (1)

houbou (1097327) | about a year ago | (#45241519)

If the developer is the owner of the software and has provided warranty for the software and/or as a selling points, uses the accuracy and reliability of the software and, assuming this, that the users of the product are following all the rules and guidelines and the software fails.. then, there could be a point towards this. So, this becomes a question of what are you selling, how much are you willing to back it up and finally, if there are any disclaimers, are they easily understood? Nothing is infallible. Considering the platforms being used, etc.. It's hard to make anything fool proof, so, how much QA was done? and are people using the product as it is intended on the devices it is meant to work on? And let's talk a professional software with proper SDLC. That means there is QA, UAT, PROD, etc.. It's not just the developer. So, this can easily be a grayish area.

Die of stupidity... (1)

mspohr (589790) | about a year ago | (#45241535)

Why do you hate the free market?
Everybody can make their own standard and just let the consumers sort it out (or not).

Re:Die of stupidity... (1)

dbIII (701233) | about a year ago | (#45243273)

Why do you hate the free market?

Because I really dislike exploding acetylene bottles. Given the option a lot of people would accept the risk of cheaper and more dangerous ones in the expectation that accidents happen to other people. However I was one of those free market hating pricks that blocked the import of some very dangerous ones from India in the 1990s.

Re:Die of stupidity... (1)

mspohr (589790) | about a year ago | (#45245369)

Yes, I agree with you completely.
My comment was meant as sarcasm but that probably wasn't clear.

Code Monkeys (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45241551)

Wow, the first ethical developer, not calling themselves an "engineer" who actually worries about the legitimate social and ethical implications of software. That is a real developer. Everyone else is just a code monkey.

It depends on a lot of things. (1)

digitig (1056110) | about a year ago | (#45241563)

Ok, I am not a lawyer, and I am not a Canadian, but as far as I can see there are a few different questions:

  • Who (if anyone) has criminal liability
  • Who can get sued?
  • Who can get successfully sued? And
  • Do you have a moral obligation independent of the law?

Where I am (the UK) criminal liability is likely to lie with the company that developed the product (or that sold it, if it was misrepresented). If they are selling safety-significant software, they should have appropriate processes in place to ensure the software is of sufficient quality and to ensure that developers are working to those processes,

For "Who can get sued", the answer is "almost anybody", and it can be financially ruining, but as far as I can see a customer who suffers harm is in the first instance likely to go after the company that sold the app and the company that developed the app -- the company would have trouble passing the responsibility down to the developer if they did not have such processes and if they did not make them sufficiently known to the developer. That might not stop them trying, though, if they're desperate to pass the buck.

For "Who can get successfully sued, that depends on local legislation and how the product is represented. It's probably not you, but as I said, I am not a lawyer.

For "moral obligation" I would say that you have an obligation to raise your concerns with your management, and whatever their response to be aware of, and as far as is in your power apply, the appropriate measures that should be applied to safety significant software -- if you can get hold of a copy of IEC61508 or local standards and guidelines it would be a big help.

People who do stupid things often die... (1)

gweihir (88907) | about a year ago | (#45241997)

There are always (and more so in modern times) people that cannot adequately estimate risk and will do stupid things without adequate protection. If some app-makers bank on that and claim properties which are not true or gross exaggerations, by all means charge them with involuntary manslaughter when their trash kills somebody. But the app-makers are only opportunistic parasites here, the real problem is people grossly overestimating their own skills. Just let them do it to themselves, its evolution at work.

do ave beacons eve n help? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45242023)

People with beacons still die all the time. Is there evidence that they are anything other than feel good devices?

Re:do ave beacons eve n help? (1)

david_bonn (259998) | about a year ago | (#45242347)

Avalanche beacons definitely help. And the technology has dramatically improved in the last twenty or thirty years. They are definitely easier to use and much more reliable nowadays.

Having said that, there are some fairly serious limitations on how well they can work. From what I remember of avalanche school, about fifty percent of avalanche victims die of traumatic injuries during the event, so obviously beacons can't help in those situations (my own personal experience in an avalanche included the tail of my ski hitting me in the forehead while still attached to my boot). But for the remaining fifty percent of victims who are likely to suffocate within minutes unless found avalanche beacons are an invaluable tool.

There is, of course, much that can be done to improve them. But that is another story.

Re:do ave beacons eve n help? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45244483)

And legitimate electrical appliance will sometimes catch fire. The difference is that regulation makes this far less likely. Believe me - I've opened some cheap Chinese shit and seen the differences in materials, design and build quality. Regulations enforce certain luxuries, like a mandated area of separation between AC and DC circuits.

Honesty and Testing (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45242033)

I think the developers are ethically responsible for being crystal clear about the capabilities, reliability, and limitations of what is produced. They are responsible for reasonably thorough testing of any claimed capabilities on the hardware/OS combos it is stated to run on.

I think it is also a question of reasonable liability. In the case of liability, I would say it depends. As stated earlier consumers need to be aware of the reliability of the application, its capabilities, and limitations. Developers should be liable for harm caused by major flaws (unlike most current EULAs) or false claims.

Obligatory XKCD:
http://xkcd.com/937/

In the case of this tornado guard, if the app doesn't actually have any functionality to warn the user of nearby tornadoes, then the consumer should be able to hold the developer liable. If it does, and the situation in question was just beyond the stated capabilities of the app, then no, the developer should not be liable.

Government involvement should consist of enforcing accurate marketing and enforcing penalties and civil liabilities when things don't work as advertised. If a government is going to develop or use a safety critical app, they should thoroughly test it, and demand source code access in the case of commercial applications.

But... but... radiation! (1)

MrEricSir (398214) | about a year ago | (#45242123)

It's alarming how there's a certain group of people who are scared of the "danger" of radiation from mobile phones, when in fact mobile phones can save lives -- 911 calls, emergency alerts, and now apps that may help folks out of an avalanche.

For now the focus needn't be on which apps are best for various purposes, but on providing cellular service globally, anti-radiation crackpots be damned.

I write EMS/Police/Fire 911 Software (3, Interesting)

FrozenFrog (539212) | about a year ago | (#45242353)

I have my own company, with 1 business partner. We write software for 911 dispatch systems. Some of our clients require us to carry "Errors and Omissions" liability insurance, which costs us upwards of $15k a year. Along with with the insurance, we have a pretty detailed EULA agreement covering bugs, etc.

If you're writing any kind of software that could directly affect the safety of others, insurance is a must.

Frog

Re:I write EMS/Police/Fire 911 Software (2)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about a year ago | (#45244867)

At least you're using insurance responsibly - does the company ever ask for any kind of audit?

I quit a job at the largest medical center in my area because the PHB's were ignoring the advice of the technical staff and insisting on buying inferior database software that was going to cause medication errors. We estimated a rate of seven mix-ups per year (due to single phase commits among disparate systems) and the bosses calculated that it would be cheaper to settle the lawsuits than to do it the right way. Fortunately, that project failed and they outsourced the whole thing five years later (most of the original talent left).

Going after app vendors is just the low-hanging fruit. Like busting shoplifters while letting the banksters ruin the economy. Oh, wait, then, nevermind.

Never trust your life to an App (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45242559)

...or you might get Apped.

What about texting apps? (1)

Tony Isaac (1301187) | about a year ago | (#45242835)

Facebook, foursquare, and just plain old texting, all impact people's safety because of their improper use, mainly by drivers. Are we going to go after texting app developers when people get hurt while using such software?

Re:What about texting apps? (1)

aokoye (1628741) | about a year ago | (#45246195)

Facebook, foursquare, and just plain old texting, all impact people's safety because of their improper use, mainly by drivers. Are we going to go after texting app developers when people get hurt while using such software?

None of the apps and websites that you mentioned make claims that they can save your life via enabling others to locate you under snow based on wifi, gps, and/or bluetooth connections. Yes texting and browsing Facebook while driving impact people's safety but, as you said, doing such is improper use. The apps brought up in the documents created by the Canadian Avalanche Centre are, unsurprisingly, likely to not enable you to be found when using the device correctly while being stuck in an Avalanche.

Professional Liability Insurance (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45242917)

It falls on you, assuming your license sucks, but just make sure your Professional Liability coverage handles that sort of thing. I make search-and-rescue alerting software for the aerospace industry, my premiums are about 33% more.

The peddlers (2)

jandersen (462034) | about a year ago | (#45243311)

...does the onus fall on the developers, a government agency or the users themselves...

If by "the developer" you mean the company that sells the product, then the answer is clear: it is the developer that is responsible. The government can at best issue guidelines for how safe and fit for purpose a product should be, and it is not realistic to expect all users to understand the full ramifications of their choices, when it comes to things that are likely to be well outside their general competencies.

On the other hand, if by "the developer" you mean the engineer who designed and coded the app, then I would say not so much, but it depends on the circumstances. In general, software is not sold directly by the developers; there is a business organisation between, that decides what to produce and how to sell it. They are far more likely to be the real culprits.

Lives, then Money, RIP Microsoft (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45243355)

Lives, then Money, RIP Microsoft

Darwin awards ahoy! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45243513)

As "xterm" put so pointedly on bash.org [bash.org] :

<xterm> The problem with America is stupidity. I'm not saying there should be a capital punishment for stupidity, but why don't we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?

Whoever has the deepest pockets is "responsible" (1)

Trip6 (1184883) | about a year ago | (#45243997)

That's the way the legal system works. There is liability in EVERYTHING. You carry E&O insurance so you don't lose your house.

Automotive judgement (1)

ElitistWhiner (79961) | about a year ago | (#45244333)

Stalled in the Mojave desert 106F in the heat of the day, a 2011 VW decided all three keys were ' not in range'. Two hours later I reached water, tow truck and ride 67 miles to civilization. It remains to this day whether the memory was wiped clean from extra-terrestial sunspot activity, fault ECU or programmed to lock-out the car at specified date/mileage.

Lexus' judgement renders the ECU behavior to be the vehicle ' owner' responsibility in California. So there's definitely a need to get tools, connections and programs on our cellphones to view logs at the very least. Programmer's are paid to build functionality. The liability unfortunately seems to rest with the end users.

On the User (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45244469)

It is up to the user. Unless the developer is specifically lying, then it is the users responsibility to accept or reject the risk of using the software. Placing responsibility on a government agency is also wrong. You are robbing the user of the right to make that decision for himself. I, as the user, want maximum choice. But having that choice comes with the risk of consequences if I choose an inferior product. Placing the burden on either the developer or the government ultimately results in limited choice for the user.

Softwhere? (1)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about a year ago | (#45244955)

Snotty, over-priced stock software corporation + millions of product copies in the field + deaths = lawyers = guess what, your stock becomes like a car company's.

There are ways to deal with this, but it involves massive process and redundancy and code reviews and design reviews and detailed checks of Lint, QAC, Polyspace, a dozen other checkers, software watchdogs that, by the way, damned well never actually be needed, etc.

Ya better put down the keyboard and get some training for a few months.

The liability falls to the one with the crap.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45244957)

In general, the liability will fall to the defendants with the weakest council.

National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) (2)

mjwalshe (1680392) | about a year ago | (#45245695)

I. Fundamental Canons Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
Perform services only in areas of their competence.
Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
Avoid deceptive acts.
Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession. http://www.onlineethics.org/Resources/ethcodes/EnglishCodes/9972.aspx [onlineethics.org]

what about where the is a chain of Contracts / sub (1)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | about a year ago | (#45245901)

what about where the is a chain of Contracts / subs where they all just pass the responsibility on.

In Canada Professional Engineers Must Do The Work (1)

celest (100606) | about a year ago | (#45246029)

In Canada, under the various provincial acts (and a National act that keeps them largely consistent), professional engineers (note, the word "engineer" is legally protected in Canada, like Medical Doctor or Lawyer, unlike in the US.) must do any work that involves human safety. That INCLUDES computer/technical related work. The classic example is software for air traffic control systems or software on space shuttle modules.

One of the problems for the engineering regulatory bodies (Professional Engineers Ontario - PEO - in the case of Ontario) is that many companies don't employ computer/software engineers even when their software involves human safety. They use computer science majors, or people with 1 year technical diplomas from the local college, or people with Microsoft or Cisco courses, or whoever happens to know whatever programming language they are using. The companies are legally required to have the work reviewed and signed off on by licensed engineers, but they just assume "oh, it's not like software is like a bridge or a building or something", so don't realise that the engineering priciples are no different than those used in structural engineering. Where it becomes even more fuzy is that the laws also state that licensed engineers must be used when "financial welfare" is on the line. Very few banking systems are properly designed by licensed computer/software engineers...

Source: I'm a professional engineer (P.Eng) registered in Ontario. Related legislation in Ontario:http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_90p28_e.htm - Professional regulatory body in Ontario: www.peo.on.ca

Re:In Canada Professional Engineers Must Do The Wo (0)

msobkow (48369) | about a year ago | (#45246101)

Bullshit.

I've done software development for such systems, and I am not a "professional engineer". I'm a professional computer programmer with a BSc in computer science.

Texting while driving and DVDs in motor vehicles (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#45248381)

Regarding: I. Fundamental Canons Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:
Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

I believe (figure not checked) that more than 3,000 Americans die each year from texting or using their mobile phones while driving. (Figure includes bystanders and pedestrians)

In-car entertainment and the demand for technologies that increased the likelihood that you can kill yourself or another road user, was driven by sales and consumer demand, not by engineers with their smug rule.

Meantime the portion of the vehicle-using population that are safety-conscious, naively believe that "if it's not safe there would be a law against it". Sorry, wrong planet, not while there's a buck in it.

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