BOSTON CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL / WIKIMEDIA

I normally focus on engineering ethics situations that make headlines. And by the nature of what makes headlines, most of the time it’s bad news. But every so often, some disaster is narrowly averted instead of going ahead and killing people or causing damage. So today I’d like to look at a small but significant success story, as reported in a recent Associated Press item.

Back in 2014, a hacker and activist named Martin Gottesfeld got upset about a teenager under treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital who was involved in a highly publicized custody battle. Gottesfeld decided to use his hacking skills to jam up the hospital’s computer networks with junk data that took two weeks to unsnarl and cost the hospital an estimated US$600,000.

The FBI got involved in tracking him down and convicting him, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison.

This incident familiarized the Children’s Hospital IT people with the FBI. When the FBI learned last summer that agents apparently hired by Iran were planning a cyberattack on the hospital, the FBI supplied their IT people with enough defensive help to forestall the attempted attack. This bit of good news was unveiled recently at a cybersecurity conference at Boston College by FBI Director Christopher Wray.

For every really bad engineering-related tragedy that hits the headlines, there are usually several other less harmful or even harmless incidents that go unreported, either because the results were not bad enough to make the news, or because someone had fixed the problem before it got really out of hand. The FBI’s success in preventing Boston Children’s Hospital from falling victim to Iranian-sponsored cyberterrorists is in this category.

In today’s hyper-speed news cycle, the traditional slant toward bad news that has existed ever since print media was invented has only gotten worse. This means that most of what we learn about institutions of all kinds—government agencies, the legal profession, the medical profession, and even religious organizations—tends to be critical or derogatory in some way.

Now to some extent, that is as it should be. One important function of a free press is to search out wrongdoing and incompetence and expose it to the light of publicity, where one hopes that the democratic process, or embarrassment, or something, will cause an improvement in the situation. So it’s only natural that editors choose stories about something going wrong over happy-clappy items that say how wonderfully some new product is working, or how some federal agency successfully rescued people from a disaster. But some good news does get out anyway.

Specifically with regard to the FBI, its popularity among the public has shifted in recent years. According to a 2019 Pew research poll, the percentage of Americans with a favourable opinion of the FBI remained remarkably constant among both Democrats and Republicans from 2010 to 2016, within a few percentage points of 70 percent. But after that, partisanship began to show, with the percentage of Republicans favouring it dipping to about half, and the percentage of Democrats rising above 70 percent. Still, on average, as of three years ago, the FBI was still favourably viewed by a majority of US citizens, according to Pew.

We depend so much in complex industrial societies for the proper functioning of institutions that it’s hard to imagine what we’d do if they broke down. But there are a number of ways public institutions fail, and one of them is to lose the public’s trust.

Even if an institution’s actual performance is just as good as it ever was, if somebody convinces a lot of people that the institution is untrustworthy, it’s going to be harder for the institution to carry out its job. On the other hand, prior good experience with an institution tends to carry forward favourably.

The Boston Children’s Hospital is a case in point. From the 2014 experience, it had a positive view of the FBI and probably some personal relationships that made it easy for the FBI to convince them of the seriousness of the recent Iranian threat. Consequently, they took action that successfully prevented the attack.

But they didn’t have to take the FBI seriously, and if this had happened to an organization that either had no prior history with the FBI, or a negative one, the protective advice might well have been ignored, to the detriment of everyone involved.

Some of the largest technically-intensive institutions these days which have taken big hits in their public perceptions are the social-media firms: Facebook, Google, Twitter, and company. Elon Musk represents no one other than himself, presumably, but his recent move to buy Twitter and take it private is being applauded by those who feel that Twitter has been too high-handed in censoring and banning certain views and people from their system.

At the same time, social media, along with the way the internet treats news in general, bear a lot of responsibility for driving a wedge between the public and all kinds of institutions, social media giants included. Now that real-time feedback has been finely tuned to maximize “engagement,” millions (billions, if you count global numbers) are constantly whipped into outrage about something, and that something usually involves some kind of public institution—if you broaden the definition of “institution” to include things like the Kardashians.

It looks like Aristotle’s advice of finding a happy medium needs to be followed here. All good-news-only media are confined to totalitarian countries such as Russia, and that extreme is to be avoided. But it looks like we may have something closer to the opposite extreme, an institution-corroding situation in which the only things you hear about the government, educators, legislators, media personalities, and churches is bad news.

I think the real answer lies not so much in yet more government regulation, or eccentric billionaires taking media companies private, but in a more mature citizenry who will not let themselves be coerced into a kind of universal cynicism, but instead use the ancient virtues of justice and prudence to find out the truth amid the smog of disinformation and hype. And achieving that maturity has to happen one person at a time.

This article has been reposted with permission from the Engineering Ethics Blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...