Liability issues inherent to technology

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today, society is flooded with new technologies. Devices and gadgets are becoming increasingly prevalent in people’s everyday lives. What if, however, all this technology that we have become so reliant on fails?

On Dec. 17, 2013, Target announced that payment information was stolen from 40 million customers. Since then, this prediction has grown to as high as 110 million customers. By installing software on the point-of-sale (POS) systems, the hackers were able to steal credit card information, names, addresses, and other personal information of Target customers. Customers and the media immediately placed the blame on Target for negligence of their cyber security systems.

The issue of system failure is not unique to Target — similar headlines have appeared before, including in the case of Toyota’s recall due to break failure in 2010. How do we deal with these breakdowns of the technology we put so much trust in? Who do we hold liable?

In the case of the Target breach, it was instantly concluded that the company was at fault. They must have been careless in making their purchase of their hardware. On the other hand, if the technology is faulty, surely the manufacturers are the ones at fault. The POS systems were overridden by open source software; the makers certainly should have predicted this would happen. There are three important points that must be made in order to prove liability.

First, did someone get hurt? It must be proven that there was some cost to a person or property as a result of the mistake. In the case of Target, releasing information about customers’ information subjects them to unauthorized charges to their bank accounts or identity theft.

Second, did the company make its best effort to understand the risk? If the company was negligent by ignoring the risk and not taking the precautions to prevent it, then it is difficult for them to claim innocence.

To prove Target guilty of negligence, it must first be proven that they did not take care to optimize their security and were not aware of the hole in their system. Third, did the user get enough information? If there is any potential risk of using a product, the consumer must be made aware of the possibility.

A final point to be considered is the legislation behind the technology’s production and use. For example, the United States government is notorious in the world of pharmaceuticals for extremely strict regulations. Because of these restrictions, people are less likely to suffer from incorrectly administered or unknowingly harmful medication.

What if the structure that the United States puts on pharmaceutical regulations were replicated for technology? If the government put more stress on reducing the risk of inventions before they are released to the public, we could stop more malicious technology failures.

However, with this system, there is potential to stifle innovation. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2010 that 40-60 percent of clinical trials for products regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are tested outside the country.

With lower standards for drug administration, it is easier to test and understand the product. Research and development becomes harder to conduct under strict rules and regulations.

Looking into the future, this burst in technological development does not appear to be slowing. It is up to us to find the balance in responsibility in order to prevent disasters while preserving innovation.

Understanding the subtleties of liability and research and development legislation can help us make informed decisions about the technology that has become a permanent fixture in our everyday lives.