Computer scientists at University of Edinburgh contemplate courses without 'Alice' and 'Bob'

Academics advised to consider excluding certain terminology for the sake of inclusivity


A working group in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland has proposed a series of steps to "decolonize" the Informatics curriculum, which includes trying "to avoid using predominantly Western names such as Alice/Bob (as is common in the computer security literature)."

The names Alice and Bob were used to represent two users of a public key cryptography system, described in a 1978 paper by Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman, "A Method for Obtaining Digital Signatures and Public-Key Cryptosystems." And since then, a variety of other mostly Western names like Eve – playing an eavesdropper intercepting communications – have been employed to illustrate computer security scenarios in related academic papers.

The School of Informatics' working group reflects the University of Edinburgh's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to meet specific obligations spelled out in Scottish regulations like the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equalities Duty.

The naming recommendation was reported last month by The Telegraph, which cited internal university documents. The Register filed a Freedom of Information Request with the University to obtain the documents, which were added to the University's website following the Telegraph report.

The relevant document consists of a PDF file that outlines the activities and discussions of the working group, consisting of School of Informatics professors Cristiana-Adriana Alexandru, Kobi Gal, Jane Hillston, Nadin Kokciyan, and Vijay Nagarajan, who also serves as director of equality, diversity and inclusion in the School of Informatics.

Early days yet

In a letter to The Register, Tessa Ewart, information compliance officer at The University of Edinburgh, explained that the ongoing decolonization effort does not translate to specific rules.

"The University has no specific policy or rules that stipulate that the names 'Alice' and 'Bob' should not be used in the context of computer security literature," Ewart explained. "The School of Informatics has run a series of workshops with a focus on decolonizing the curriculum, for teaching staff to consider inclusiveness in the curriculum and delivery for any course for which they are responsible."

"These conversations are summarized in a published report on the activities towards decolonizing the Informatics curriculum, to which the use of terminology referred to in The Telegraph article, is but one example. To confirm, this report is intended to guide and inform, and is not mandated."

The school website acknowledges that the term "decolonization" is ill-defined.

"Decolonization is the disruption and dismantling of colonial structures and behaviors," the website explains, without identifying those structures or behaviors.

"It is open to interpretation what 'decolonizing' means in a discipline that was invented largely after the colonial age, but we are taking it to be an opportunity to re-examine what we teach so that we can identify and remove any barriers to participation, making the curriculum and learning experience as inclusive as possible."

Some of the resources provided to faculty during this process engage in rather fanciful speculation in an effort to argue that technology companies are analogous to colonial powers. For example, this 2015 essay referenced in the workshop summary, "Technological Colonialism," postulates that Google's failed barge-based pop-up stores might have been an experiment in self-sovereignty:

"Google has a history of beta testing experiments, and the Google Barges could have been an early attempt at sea-steading. Sea-steading is the attempt to create non-governmental entities outside of recognized borders and gain freedom from legal control. If technology companies could create sea-steads, then they could set up operations outside of legal restraints."

But the working group summary itself offers at least a few more practical suggestions of what decolonization might involve.

Examples cited in the document include "to avoid using master/slave to represent computing agents and instead use coordinator or workers" – a decision taken by numerous open source projects and companies in recent years – and to avoid using off-putting stereotypes during instruction.

The working group summary also touches on the need to consider ethical issues like AI bias, to recognize cultural diversity by citing foundational work from non-Western cultures, and to be aware of underrepresented pioneers.

The paper concludes that course instructors should examine their curricula to consider how to make course content and delivery inclusive.

"The University is committed to embedding equality, diversity and inclusion across all our work and to developing a positive culture where all staff and students are able to develop to their full potential," said Ewart. "Our continuing commitment to equality and diversity plays a vital role to ensure the University's success as a great civic institution for both students and staff."

Even if your name is Alice or Bob. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • India reveals home-grown server that won't worry the leading edge

    And a National Blockchain Strategy that calls for gov to host BaaS

    India's government has revealed a home-grown server design that is unlikely to threaten the pacesetters of high tech, but (it hopes) will attract domestic buyers and manufacturers and help to kickstart the nation's hardware industry.

    The "Rudra" design is a two-socket server that can run Intel's Cascade Lake Xeons. The machines are offered in 1U or 2U form factors, each at half-width. A pair of GPUs can be equipped, as can DDR4 RAM.

    Cascade Lake emerged in 2019 and has since been superseded by the Ice Lake architecture launched in April 2021. Indian authorities know Rudra is off the pace, and said a new design capable of supporting four GPUs is already in the works with a reveal planned for June 2022.

    Continue reading
  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021