The Art of Saying “No”: Design Refusal

A new tide in engineering education is rising at Olin College: the concept of “design refusal,” or deciding as engineers not to undertake projects or build technologies that may cause harm to the public.

The idea surfaced in fall 2019 when a group of Olin students in PInT, a student-led public interest technology project team were consulting for an anti-human trafficking nonprofit.

“The organization proposed a potential tool for us to build that they believed would be useful for their work: a web scraper to scrape escort sites for ads where the posters could be potential victims of human trafficking,” says Shreya Chowdhary ’22, one of the students in the group, as well as a co-founder of PInT. “They had been scraping ads manually for over a year with some success, and they hoped that automation would allow them to identify and rescue more victims.”

The team of students diligently got to work, until their advisor, Erhardt Graeff, assistant professor of social and computer science, raised some important—and uncomfortable—questions. He pointed out that the tool could potentially be used to collect data on voluntary sex workers without their consent and disseminate it to law enforcement partners.

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