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Ethical Arguments Of Electronic Surveillance Information Technology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Information Technology
Wordcount: 3141 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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1.1 Introduction

In his dystopian masterpiece, “1984”, George Orwell portrays a society in which government surveillance has become all too pervasive with nightmarish consequences. Even though Orwell never envisioned the advent of the internet and how it has become part of our daily lives, he understood the dangers of a culture of surveillance and much of what he wrote has become startlingly true. Indeed governments have moved on from traditional spying to electronic surveillance, thanks to the internet and other electronic forms of communication. Corporations too have jumped on the surveillance bandwagon, though for different purposes. This has led to ethical concerns, as illustrated in the case of the research firm Phorm.

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1.2 Ethical Concerns that Could Arise

Phorm is a company in the United Kingdom that developed software that allows it to monitor users’ online activities without their consent. This has legal ramifications as allowing such activities has caused the European Commission to investigate the UK for breaching rules pertaining to consent to interception of online transactions. However, the issue has an ethical dimension as well. Phorm has tried to justify its actions citing the benefits to customers and the companies involved. However, is it morally and ethically right for a corporation, no matter how innocent its purpose, to secretly monitor the activities of internet users without their consent? Do the advantages, both in financial and non- financial terms warrant this seeming violation of basic human rights? These are some of the ethical dilemmas posed by this case and they will be critically examined in this report.

1.3 Ethical Arguments in Support of Electronic Surveillance

Corporate surveillance is a new form of surveillance by companies of people and groups. The aim is to collect data for marketing purpose which is used by the corporation itself or as in the case of Phorm, sold to third party corporations or the government (Brooks and Dunn, 2010). From the company’s perspective, this is an excellent form of business intelligence as the data collected can be used to refine marketing strategies to reach the target audience. Direct marketing also employs online corporate surveillance as evidenced by Google and Yahoo (New York Times, 2007). Governments also make use of corporate surveillance data to monitor the activities of users and collect information to do profiling. The U.S. government has used this approach more often in recent years to track down terrorists, and this may be good in a sense.

The ethical argument in support of this type of initiative is that it benefits various stakeholders. Electronic surveillance can improve marketing activities and this leads to more revenue which in turn benefit shareholders and the employees of the corporation that uses the services of electronic surveillance company data. Supposedly, when shareholder and employee wealth is maximized, it elevates the standard of living and thus, benefits society as a whole. True, customers are literally spied on but there is no physical damage done. Most customers are oblivious and what they do not know would not harm them. In fact, such improved marketing could even help them make better decisions when buying products and services since they will receive advertisements on things that interest them. These are some of the arguments that are used to support electronic surveillance by corporations.

1.4 Ethical Arguments Against this Type of Initiative

To answer why corporate electronic surveillance is unethical and unjustifiable, we need to frame it in ethical terms. Let us look at it from the theory of consequentialism. Consequentialists are intent on maximizing the utility produced by a decision (Ermann et al, 1990). For them, the rightness of an act depends on its consequences. Consequentialism holds that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the net good. In other words, an act and therefore a decision is ethical if its favourable consequences outweigh its negative consequences. Moreover, some believe that only the act that maximizes the net benefit of favourable minus the negative consequences is morally right or ethical. Philosophers also debate what consequences should be counted, how they should be counted and who deserves to be included in the set of affected stakeholders that should be considered (Brooks and Dunn, 2010).

Therefore, corporate electronic surveillance is morally wrong because it does not maximize the net good. True, it may improve sales slightly if done in secret but if customers are aware that they are being spied on, they will feel violated and alienate the company altogether. Other potential customers may shy away from the company as well. In the end, such a move could seriously backfire and negatively impact shareholders. The net disadvantages dramatically outweigh the advantages. It is also illegal since such activities constitute a breach of international laws on internet privacy.

Deontology is different from consequentialism in that deontologists focus on the obligations or duties motivating a decision or actions that on the consequences of the action (MacKinnon, 1998). Deontological ethics takes the position that rightness depends on the respect shown for duty, and the rights and fairness that those duties reflect. Consequently, a deontological approach raises issues relating to duties, rights and justice considerations and teaches students to use moral standards, principles and rules as a guide to making the best ethical decisions (Caroll, 1991).

Deontological reasoning is largely based on the thinking of Immanuel Kant. He argued that a rational person making a decision about what would be good to do, would consider what action would be good for all members of society to do. Such an act would improve the well-being of the decision maker and the well-being of society as well. Kant began to search for an overriding principle that would guide all action – an imperative that everybody should follow without exception, which could therefore be considered universal or categorical (Brooks and Dunn, 2010). His search led to what is known as Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which is a dominant principle or rule for deontologists. Kant’s principal indicates that there is a duty or imperative to “always act in such a way that you can also will the maxim of your action should become a universal law” (MacKinnon, 1998). This means that “if you cannot will that everyone follow the same decision rule, your rule is not a moral one.

As a universal principle, everyone should follow it. Moreover, the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – would readily qualify as a universal principal (Forrester and Morrision, 1990). Using the same approach could yield a universal respect for human rights and for fair treatment of all. This can be best achieved by adopting the position that one must fulfil obligations or duties that respect moral or human rights and legal or contract rights (Flaherty, 1989). Furthermore, it can only he achieved if individuals act with “enlightened self-interest” rather than pure self-interest. Under enlightened self-interest, the interests of individuals are taken into account in decisions (Verschoor, 1988). They are not simply ignored or overridden. Individuals are considered “ends” rather than used as “means” to achieve an end or objective. Actions based on duty, rights and justice considerations are particularly important to professionals, directors and executives who are expected to fulfil the obligations of a fiduciary (Wartick and Cochran, 1985).

In classical management, it has been repeatedly argued that the only fiduciary duty management owes is to the shareholders of a corporation. Thus, if activities are disadvantageous to customers, it does not matter. However, such thinking has gradually gone out of favour as corporations now realize the importance of embracing all their stakeholders (Freeman, 1984). Hence, electronic surveillance would be deemed “enlightened self-interest” in the old way of thinking but it is now regarded as pure self-interest. Companies that spy on customers are violating their privacy and show them no respect, which is a breach of duty of care . Electronic surveillance also goes against the Golden Rule so there is no deontological basis in support of electronic surveillance.

From the above discussion, it is obvious that the arguments against electronic surveillance far outweigh those in support of it. For every argument in support, there are a few against it. Hence, corporations should stop it and use other methods that are more respectable, ethical and legal to gather marketing data.

1.5 Conclusion

The ethical arguments in support of corporate electronic surveillance are scant and specious. At best, it leads to improved sales and happy shareholders but it severely undermines the basic principle of respecting the privacy of others. The right to privacy is a right to be free from certain intrusions. It is highly intrusive to have all of one’s online activities monitored and used to create a database about the user’s likes and preferences, especially when the user is an unwilling party. From all ethical perspectives, whether utilitarian, deontological consequentialism, there is little or no basis in support of such activities.

Task Two

2.1 Introduction

To Phorm, its monitoring software may be a legitimate form of business. However, as a software developer, it must abide by the professional code of conduct regarding professional responsibility. The question here is whether there is a conflict of interest between its business activities and its professional responsibilities.

2.2 Conflicts with software developers’ professional responsibilities

Software developing and engineering is a profession. As such, it has professional associations which like all other professional associations have their own code of conduct regarding professional responsibility. This is done to safeguard the reputation of the profession and to maintain the highest standards of ethics. Among the professional associations for software developers are AMC, IEEE, APEGBC and the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP). To be a member of these associations, one must abide by the respective code of ethics and professional responsibility. Failure to do so would result in suspension or revocation of license to practice the profession.

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The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice states that software developers should be committed to making the design, analysis, development, testing and maintenance of software a respected and beneficial profession and that all engineers should adhere to eight basic principles. Principle 6 relates to professional responsibility. This clearly stipulates that software developers shall advance the integrity and reputation of the profession that is consistent with the public interest. Among other things, a software developer should not promote their own interest at the expense of the profession, client or employer (6.05), obey all laws governing their work, unless in exceptional circumstances, compliance is inconsistent with the public interest (6.06) and avoid associations with businesses and organizations which are in conflict with this code (6.10).

Based on this principle alone, Phorm has made many breaches of professional ethics. Monitoring software such as the one developed by Phorm goes against this professional responsibility code. In fact, this action goes against the interest of customers since it monitors their online activities without their knowledge. Similarly, such an action is inconsistent with public interest as it is morally, ethically and legally wrong for companies to do surveillance on the public without their knowledge (Flaherty, 1989). Phorm should know better than to conduct business that is in conflict with a professional code of conduct. Even though its software developers may not be members of this specific professional organization, they are sure to be members of other organizations which would have similar guidelines.

Phorm’s actions also conflict with principle one of this code which concerns the public. It states that software engineers should act consistently with the public interest. According to paragraph 1.03, software developers should approve software only if they have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests and does not diminish the quality of life, diminish privacy or harm the environment.

Phorm’s monitoring software diminishes individual privacy. According to Warren and Brandies (1890), privacy can be defined as a “right to be left alone”. It is widely regarded that privacy is a basic human right. Phorm’s case is a good illustration of the problems concerning internet privacy. This is because while most agree that internet privacy must be protected, there is debate on the extent it should be protected. Should privacy protection be accorded to email usage or to websites visited as well? Privacy protection is a vital part of democracy but many countries in the world, most noticeably China, are not democracies and therefore have no qualms about seriously undermining internet privacy. Nevertheless, such arguments are mainly about the rights of governments to monitor the activities of citizens for the greater good, for instance protection against terrorism. However, in terms of corporate surveillance, laws and professional codes explicitly prohibit it.

2.3 Suitability of an established code of computer ethics or an ethical decision making model

There are many professional codes of ethics such as the one mentioned in the previous section that helps professionals make ethical decisions. The problem is that they are general and not company specific. Also, some employees in a corporation are not members of a professional organization and therefore do not feel obliged to follow the guidelines stipulated by these organizations. For example, software developers may be against developing monitoring software, but if the CEO compels them to do so, they have little choice but to follow orders or leave the organization. To overcome this problem, each corporation should have its own code of ethics and ethical decision making model to make the right choice.

A decision making model must be designed to enhance ethical reasoning by providing insights into the identification and analysis of key issues to be considered and questions or challenges to be raised and approaches to combining and applying decision relevant factors into practical action (Brook and Dunn, 2010). A decision or action is considered ethical or right if it conforms to certain standards. One standard alone is insufficient to ensure an ethical decision. Consequently, an ethical decision making framework should be designed so that decisions or actions are compared against four standards for a comprehensive assessment of ethical behaviour.

The ethical decision making model assesses the ethicality of a decision or action by examining the consequences or well-offness created in terms of net benefits or costs, rights and duties affected, fairness involved and motivation or virtues expected (Paine, 1994).

The first three of these considerations – consequentialism, deontology and justice are examined by focusing on the impacts of a decision on shareholders and other affected stakeholders, an approach known as stakeholder impact analysis (Caroll, 1991). The fourth consideration, the motivation of the decision maker is known as virtue ethics (Pastin, 1986). It provides insights likely to be helpful when assessing current and future governance problems as part of a normal risk management exercise. All four considerations must be examined thoroughly and appropriate ethical values must be applied in the decision and its implementation if a decision or action is to be defensible ethically.

There are three steps for making an ethical decision (Velasquez, 1992). Step one is identifying the facts and all stakeholder groups and interests likely to be affected. Step two is to rank the stakeholders and their interest, identifying the most important and weighing them more than other issues in the analysis. The final step is to assess the impact of the proposed action on each stakeholder group interests with regard to their well-being, fairness of treatment and other rights, including virtue expectations, using a comprehensive framework of questions and making sure that the common pitfalls do not enter into the analysis. These pitfalls include conforming to an unethical corporate culture, misinterpreting public expectations and focusing on short term profits and shareholder only impacts (Paine, 1994).

It may be helpful to organize an ethical decision analysis using the seven steps outlined by the American Accounting Association (1993) (Cited in Brooke and Dunn, 2010). One, determine the facts such as what, who, when, where and how. Two, define the ethical issues. Three, identify major principles, rules and values. Four, specify the alternatives. Five, compare values and alternatives and see if a clear decision emerges. Six, asses the consequences and finally make the decision.

2.4 Conclusion

The development and implementation of involuntary electronic monitoring, such as done by Phorm conflicts with software developers’ professional responsibilities. This is because no professional association of software developers would ever sanction the creation of software that violates the privacy of users and goes against the best interest of society. To overcome such a situation, each IT organization must have its own corporate code of ethics. This should compliment the professional code of ethics of software developers and serve to ensure the highest ethical standards. Yet it is not enough for a company to create a good ethics policy. Implementation is the hard part and high ethical conduct must flow from top to bottom and there must be zero tolerance for breach of professional ethics. It is only by instituting such strict policies that activities like monitoring users’ internet usage can be curbed.


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