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By Jeff Relkin
In “10 ethical issues raised by IT
capabilities,” we examined ethical issues raised by IT
capabilities, issues that all of us as technology professionals need to
consider as we go about our duties. This time, we take a look at ethical issues
more specific to management–and not necessarily just IT management. Once
again, one of our themes is that advances in technology, just like advances in
any other area of endeavor, can generate societal changes that should cause us
to reexamine our behavior. The dynamic nature of civilization means some
components of ethical codes that were perfectly appropriate in previous
generations may no longer apply. Although space limits us to 10 issues, the
ones we examine here are based on five main categories of particular interest
to technologists: privacy, ownership, control, accuracy, and security. As in
the previous article there are more questions than answers.
Does information’s availability justify its use?
Governments collect massive
amounts of data on individuals and organizations and use it for a variety of
purposes: national security, accurate tax collection, demographics,
international geopolitical strategic analysis, etc. Corporations do the same
for commercial reasons; to increase business, control expense, enhance
profitability, gain market share, etc. Technological advances in both hardware
and software have significantly changed the scope of what can be amassed and
processed. Massive quantities of data, measured in petabytes and beyond, can be
centrally stored and retrieved effortlessly and quickly. Seemingly disparate
sources of data can be cross-referenced to glean new meanings when one set of
data is viewed within the context of another.
In the 1930s and 1940s the
volumes of data available were miniscule by comparison and the “processing” of
that data was entirely manual. Had even a small portion of today’s capabilities
existed, the world as we now know it would probably be quite different.
Should organizations’ ability
to collect and process data on exponentially increasing scales be limited in
any way? Does the fact that information can be architected for a particular
purpose mean it should be, even if by so doing individual privacy rights are
potentially violated? If data meant for one use is diverted to another process
which is socially redeeming and would result in a greater good or could result
in a financial gain, does that mitigate the ethical dilemma, no matter how
innocent and pure the motivation?
How much effort and expense should managers incur in considering questions of
data access and privacy?
This is an issue with both
internal and external implications. All organizations collect personal data on
employees, data that if not properly safeguarded can result in significant
negative implications for individuals. Information such as compensation and
background data and personal identification information, such as social
security number and account identifiers, all have to be maintained and accessed
by authorized personnel. Systems that track this data can be secured, but at
some point data must leave those systems and be used. Operational policies and
procedures can address the proper handling of that data but if they’re not
followed or enforced, there’s hardly any point in having them. Organizations
routinely share data with each other, merging databases containing all kinds of
What’s the extent of the
responsibility we should expect from the stewards of this data? Since there’s
no perfect solution, where’s the tipping point beyond which efforts to ensure
data can be accessed only by those who are authorized to do so can be
considered reasonable and appropriate?
What can employers expect from employees with regard to nondisclosure when
going to work for another firm?
Many people are required to
sign NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) and noncompete clauses in employment
contracts, legal documents that restrict their ability to share information
with other future employers even to the point of disallowing them to join
certain companies or continue to participate in a particular industry.
What about the rest of us,
who have no such legal restrictions? In the course of our work for employer A,
we are privy to trade secrets, internal documents, proprietary processes and
technology, and other information creating competitive advantage. We can’t do a
brain dump when we leave to go to work for employer B; we carry that
information with us. Is it ethical to use our special knowledge gained at one
employer to the benefit of another? How do you realistically restrict yourself
from doing so?
What part of an information asset belongs to an organization and what is simply
part of an employee’s general knowledge?
Information, knowledge, and
skills we develop in the course of working on projects can be inextricably
intertwined. You’re the project manager for an effort to reengineer your
company’s marketing operations system. You have access to confidential internal
memoranda on key organization strategic and procedural information. To build
the new system, you and your team have to go for some advanced technical
training on the new technology products you’ll be using. The new system you
build is completely revolutionary in design and execution.
Although there are areas of
patent law that cover many such situations, there’s not much in the way of case
law testing this just yet, and of course laws vary between countries. Clearly,
you’ve built an asset owned by your company, but do you have a legitimate claim
to any part of it? Can you take any part of this knowledge or even the design
or code itself with you to another employer or for the purpose of starting your
own company? Suppose you do strike out on your own and sell your system to
other companies. Is the ethical dilemma mitigated by the fact that your
original company isn’t in the software business? Or that you’ve sold your
product only to noncompeting companies? What if we were talking about a
database instead of a system?
Do employees know the degree to which behavior is monitored?
Organizations have the right
to monitor what employees do (management is measurement) and how technology
systems are used. It’s common practice to notify employees that when they use
organizational assets such as networks or Internet access, they should have no
expectation of privacy. Even without that disclaimer, they really don’t need
the warning to know this monitoring is, or could be, taking place.
Do organizations have an
obligation to notify employees as to the extent of that monitoring? Should an
organization make it clear that in addition to monitoring how long employees
are using the Internet, it’s also watching which Web sites they visit? If the
organization merely says there’s no expectation of privacy when using the
e-mail system, is it an ethical violation when employees later find out it was
actually reading their e-mails?
Does data gathered violate employee privacy rights?
organizations have started adding a credit and background check to the standard
reference check during the hiring process. Are those organizations obligated to
tell us they’re doing this and what results they’ve received? The justification
for doing the credit check typically is that a person who can’t manage his or
her own finances probably can’t be trusted with any fiduciary responsibility on
behalf of the organization. Does this pass the smell test or is this actually
an infringement of privacy?
these checks is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought on in part by the
desire of organizations to protect themselves in the wake of the numerous
corporate scandals of the past few years but also because technology has
enabled this data to be gathered, processed, and accessed quickly and
inexpensively. Is technology responsible for enabling unethical behavior?
Is accuracy an explicit part of someone’s responsibility?
Business has always had a love/hate relationship with
accuracy. Effective decision making is driven by accurate information, but
quality control comes with a cost both in terms of dollars and productivity. (If
you’re checking, you can’t also be doing.)
In a bygone era, there was less data to work with, and the
only quality assurance that needed to be performed was on data…operations and
procedures were manual, so it was the output of those functions that was most
critical. Technology has enabled vastly more complicated and interconnected
processes, such that a problem far upstream in a process has a ripple effect on
the rest of the process. Sarbanes Oxley requires the certification of all
internal controls in large part for this reason. Unfortunately, accuracy is one
of those areas that always seems to be assigned to the dreaded “someone,” which
all too often translates to no one. On what basis should the level of accuracy
in any given system be determined? How much accuracy is sufficient? How should
responsibility for accuracy be assigned?
Have the implications of potential error been anticipated?
assembly lines have a cord or chain that can be pulled when a worker notices a
particular unit has a flaw. The line is brought to a halt and the unit can
either be removed or repaired. The effect of the error can be contained. As
complex interactions between systems and ever larger databases have been
created, the downstream consequence of error has become vastly more magnified. So
too has the growing dependence on highly distributed systems increased the
potential for, and the cost of, error.
managers have a correspondingly greater responsibility to assess negative
outcomes and the mitigations of costs and effects of errors? Can management or
system owners be held accountable if unforeseen errors occur? Is this also the
case for predictable but unmitigated error?
Have systems been reviewed for the most likely sources of security breach?
As we mentioned in the
previous article on ethics, security used to be confined to locking the door on
the way out of the office or making sure the lock on the safe was spun to fully
engage the tumblers. Technology presents us with a whole new set of security
challenges. Networks can be breached, personal identification information can
be compromised, identities can be stolen and potentially result in personal
financial ruin, critical confidential corporate information or classified
government secrets can be stolen from online systems, Web sites can be hacked,
keystroke loggers can be surreptitiously installed, and a host of others. (It’s
interesting to note at this point that statistics still show that more than 80
percent of stolen data is the result of low tech “dumpster diving,” and
approximately the same percentage of oranizational crime is the result of an
How far can–and should–management
go in determining the security risks inherent in systems? What level of
addressing those risks can be considered reasonable?
What’s the liability exposure of managers and the organization?
Can system owners be held
personally liable when security is compromised? When an organization holds
stewardship of data on external entities–customers, individuals, other
organizations–and that data is compromised, to what extent is the victimized
corporation liable to the secondary victims, those whose data was stolen?
generally have internal policies for dealing with security breaches, but not
many yet have specific policies to address this area. Managers who do not
secure the systems for which they’re responsible, employees who cavalierly use
information to which they should not have access, and system users who find
shortcuts around established security procedures are dealt with in the same
fashion as anyone who doesn’t meet the fundamental job requirements, anything
from transfer or demotion to termination. Should compromised or ineffective
security be held to a higher standard?
Jeff Relkin has 30+ years of technology-based
experience at several Fortune 500 corporations as a developer, consultant, and
manager. He has also been an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Manhattanville College. At present, he’s the CIO of the
Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a federal government agency located in
Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily
represent the views of MCC or the United States of America.