Authors: Professor Sarah Hitt SFHEA (NMITE); Professor Raffaella Ocone OBE FREng FRSE (Heriot Watt University); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Dr Matthew Studley (University of the West of England, Bristol); Dr Nik Whitehead (University of Wales Trinity Saint David); Dr Darian Meacham (Maastricht University); Professor Mike Bramhall (TEDI-London); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Data security of smart technologies.

Engineering disciplines: Electronics, Data, Mechatronics.

Ethical issues: Autonomy, Dignity, Privacy, Confidentiality.

Professional situations: Communication, Honesty, Transparency, Informed consent.

Educational level: Intermediate.

Educational aim: Practise ethical analysis. Ethical analysis is a process whereby ethical issues are defined and affected parties and consequences are identified so that relevant moral principles can be applied to a situation in order to determine possible courses of action.


Learning and teaching notes:

This case involves a software engineer who has discovered a potential data breach in a smart home community. The engineer must decide whether or not to report the breach, and then whether to alert and advise the residents. In doing so, considerations of the relevant legal, ethical, and professional responsibilities need to be weighed. The case also addresses communication in cases of uncertainty as well as macro-ethical concerns related to ubiquitous and interconnected digital technology.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and/or activities as desired

Learners will have the opportunity to:

Teachers will have the opportunity to:


Learning and teaching resources:



Smart homes have been called “the road to independent living”. They have the potential to increase the autonomy and safety of older people and people with disabilities. In a smart home, the internet of things (IoT) is coupled with advanced sensors, chatbots and digital assistants. This combination enables residents to be connected with both family members and health and local services, so that if there there are problems, there can be a quick response.

Ferndale is a community of smart homes. It has been developed at considerable cost and investment as a pilot project to demonstrate the potential for better and more affordable care of older people and people with disabilities. The residents have a range of capabilities and all are over the age of 70. Most live alone in their home. Some residents are supported to live independently through: reminders to take their medication; prompts to complete health and fitness exercises; help completing online shopping orders and by detecting falls and trips throughout the house. The continuous assessment of habits, diet and routines allows the technology to build models that may help to predict any future negative health outcomes. These include detecting the onset of dementia or issues related to dietary deficiencies. The functionality of many smart home features depends on a reliable and secure internet connection.


Dilemma – Part one:

You are the software engineer responsible for the integrity of Ferndale’s system. During a routine inspection you discover several indicators suggesting a data breach may have occurred via some of the smart appliances, many of which have cameras and are voice-activated. Through the IoT, these appliances are also connected to Amazon Ring home security products – these ultimately link to Amazon, including supplying financial information and details about purchases.


Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: Technical analysis – Before the ethical questions can be considered, the students might consider a number of immediate technical questions that will help inform the discussion on ethical issues. A sample data set or similar technical problem could be used for this analysis. For example:

2. Activity: Identify legal and ethical issues. The students should reflect on what might be the immediate ethical concerns of this situation. This could be done in small groups or a larger classroom discussion.

Possible prompts:

3. Activity: Determine the wider ethical context. Students should consider what wider moral issues are raised by this situation. This could be done in small groups or a larger classroom discussion.

Possible prompts:


Dilemma – Part two:

You send an email to Ferndale’s manager about the potential breach, emphasising that the implications are possibly quite serious. She replies immediately, asking that you do not reveal anything to anyone until you are absolutely certain about what has happened. You email back that it may take some time to determine if the software security has been compromised and if so, what the extent of the breach has been. She replies explaining that she doesn’t want to cause a panic if there is nothing to actually worry about and says “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” How do you respond?     


Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Professional values – What guidance is given by codes of ethics such as the Royal Academy of Engineering/Engineering Council’s Statement of Ethical Principles or the Association for Computing Machinery Code of Ethics?

2. Activity: Map possible courses of action. The students should think about the possible actions they might take. They can be prompted to articulate different approaches that could be adopted, such as the following, but also develop their own alternative responses.

3. Activity: Hold a debate on which is the best approach and why. The students should interrogate the pros and cons of each possible course of action including the ethical, technical, and financial implications. They should decide on their own preferred course of action and explain why the balance of pros and cons is preferable to other options.

4. Activity: Role-play a conversation between the engineer and the manager, or a conversation between the engineer and a resident.

5. Discussion: consider the following questions:

6. Activity: Change perspectives. Imagine that you are the child of one of Ferndale’s residents and that you get word of the potential data security breach. What would you hope the managers and engineers would do?

7. Activity: Write a proposal on how the system might be improved to stop this happening in the future or to mitigate unavoidable risks. To inform the proposal, the students should also explore the guidance of what might be best practice in this area. For example, in this instance, they may decide on a series of steps.


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Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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