Domains of Information Ethics

Government, Corporate, War, and Society


Introduction:

 

In our increasingly information-dependant world, our technological ability to obtain, store, interconnect, distribute, and analyze data and information has outstripped our legal and ethical consideration. The process of information collection is often hidden or unnoted and the methods of analysis and the decisions based on such analyses are frequently unknown or misunderstood. Individuals, corporations, and governments can now easily obtain information technologies that enable unprecedented information collection that can be combined and analyzed in surprising and sometimes frightening ways. Data mining for marketing, political campaigns, consumer behavior, and terrorist risk assessment is now so common that it is "in the noise". Surveillance of individuals is ubiquitous, from government monitoring of phone calls, emails, and international travel patterns to corporate monitoring of web-site visits, communications, physical location, and computer keystrokes . Individuals, corporations, news outlets, and governments participate in distributing filtered information including "little white lies", suppression of scientific information, and selective use of intelligence. In our personal lives and increasingly in business contexts, "utility", "efficiency" and "value optimization" are core principles many business students aspire to.

In most instances the information collectors, analysts, and decision-makes believe that their use of information systems and technologies is ethical. Yet these judgments are not about the technologies themselves, but rather are fundamentally about the ethics of the information that is being collected, analyzed, used, and distributed, and about the means of collection, sorting and storage. This slight shift away from the technologies toward the information itself changes the discussion in significant ways. Differences in public/private spheres, questions regarding ownership versus allowable reproduction and use, and the relationship of information to privacy, to security, and to honesty are all complex and typically treated as contextual issues. Daily, we each make decisions in this realm, but rarely are we asked to explain or justify those decisions from an ethical perspective. But, today's business environment is under ever-greater scrutiny from many different stakeholders. Business students will be well served by an ability to recognize, justify and be persuasive as they study, react to, and create policies regarding information in their chosen profession, in their lives, and as citizens.

The contents of this book are entirely produced and edited by the students in a Leeds School of Business class entitled "The Ethics of Information: Snooping, Hacking, Surveillance, Lying and Other Forms of (mis)Communication". The goal was not to "teach ethics" to the students but rather to provide a framework within which moral dilemmas regarding the use of information could be discussed. As dilemmas cannot by nature be questions of "correct" and "incorrect", it was critical to examine how valid, sound, and persuasive arguments for policies or decisions regarding information collection, use or distribution can be constructed. We pursued this understanding by comparing and contrasting different positions and rhetorical styles (e.g. Mellow's justification for the Iraq War ) and based our initial discussions on a wide-ranging collection of literature. Although ethical discussions can be carried out as rarified philosophical debates between unitary ethical stances, this class grounded its discussion in practical, policy-oriented positions such as Whetstone's tripartite prescription for servant leadership . We examined the importance of understanding fundamental assumptions in "unambiguous" domains of knowledge by comparing the logical systems of geometry of Euclid and Lobachevsky. Armed with knowledge that different fundamental axioms and beliefs will result in different logical outcomes, we examined potential ethical problems in the representation of statistical and graphical information . Forms of (mis)communication were further demonstrated in the nature of lying , and the finer point of manipulating information "short of lying" . Current government and corporate surveillance policies as well as the classification and obfuscation of scientific and medical information were discussed. Finally, we examined Bandura's theory of moral disengagement as the underlying basis of unethical behaviors and the psychology of ethical judgment versus actual behavior .

But these group readings and discussions only laid the foundations for the real work of the class - to identify and research relevant and timely issues, write, critique each others text, revise papers, and grapple with very abstract and conflicting ideas. As students explored both the current news and the academic literature they came to realize not only the sheer depth and breadth of the issues surrounding information ethics in business, government, and society but also the intensity and ill-defined nature of the problems and the arguments supporting each position. In their research on the topics they chose to pursue, each group selected academic journals and popular press articles, books, lectures, and website information related to the issues under discussion, each team also led class discussions of the ethics involved in the various issues. They quickly realized that what is obviously a "right" decision by the government to protect us from terrorism becomes debatable when it is your email or phone patterns that are monitored. Combining private and potentially inaccurate information in commercial databases is obviously utilitarian for the bank. But then they realized that the risk categories formed are arbitrary, the data used to form those categories may not be relevant or accurate, and the individual consequences can be significant. They debated the tradeoff between greater corporate "efficiency" gained by pre-employment screening, drug testing, and workplace surveillance and the loss of trust and lack of aspiration to virtuous behavior that such privacy invasion can engender. The balance between ethical positions such as utility, duty, fairness, virtue, and values (e.g. honesty, trust, loyalty, integrity and courage) became far more real and difficult as the class worked to embed and justify their positions in actual policies and decisions.

This book represents a considerable amount of thought and work by a group of bright and talented students. Despite the challenges and often abstract nature of the arguments, these papers represent a critical component of education – participation in the debate. These students have created and earned a greater awareness of individual, corporate and government policies and practices, as well as an understanding of the implications of not considering the ethical aspects of the Information Society. This awareness places them well ahead of their peers in a vital area of business and society – the Domain of Information Ethics.

Dr. Dirk S. Hovorka
Scholar in Residence
Leeds School of Business
University of Colorado at Boulder
December 2006


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