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. ®

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