Domains of Information Ethics

Government, Corporate, War, and Society


Preface:

 

The book you have in your hands is the product of sweat and tears, and more importantly, of critical thinking and engagement with big ideas and important ethical issues related to the Information Age in which we live.  Knowledge of these issues often tend to be broad, vague, missing important points, and typically filled with euphemistic language; but, they are very important to individuals, society, business, government, and international relations and conflicts. This book results from a semester’s work by students in their senior business core curriculum class in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  The students studying "The Ethics of Information: Snooping, Hacking, Surveillance, Lying and other Forms of (mis)Communication" pursued an in-depth understanding of the ethical issues of information, including omitted or hidden evidence---all with an eye toward analyzing and determining solutions to tricky and dangerous problems related to the ethics of information.

Exactly what does it mean for students to examine this field, the “Ethics of Information”?  From their perspective, the examination began with the typical individual’s vague awareness that information about them is gathered and used, and they knew that sometimes that information is stolen or misused, as in credit card theft.  But, most of the students initially accepted the notion that somehow it is all right for “authorities” to collect data, e.g., if they work for a corporation then that corporation has the right to monitory their email and their internet use on office machines. In fact, on day three of class, I attended and ask every student to allow me to record the information on their student ID card with my little handheld recorder (my broken garage door opener, turned upside down). Two students asked me if I worked for the university, which I could answer affirmatively, and only one student asked why I needed the data, to which I replied there had been some registration errors and I wanted to assure they were students.  My replies, though not fully revealing, were true. Students were duped, and they later realized that this sort of process occurs daily in various situations.   But, they also realized that such information might contain personal data or data that had no real relationship to the inquiry.  Why, they wondered, is it necessary for anyone or any entity to collect and use information?  Is that collection and monitoring ethical? 

Students applied these and other related questions to larger issues: government surveillance of people and systems in airports, schools, at public events; government collection and analysis of personal information, internationally produced information gathered by systems that collect and sort data sent to satellites from around the world, and they asked who has access to their medical information outsourced to storage in India, or who has access to their personal email or internet activity from home, or to their land-line or cell phone communication, or even to the programs they watch on television and th books the get from the library. One student remarked, as he began to seriously consider the ethics of the vast storage and use of information, and that he was beginning to feel very much like a character in George Orwell’s 1984, with telespeak machines and newspeak terms and revised history deleting or covering up the real information. “Where is the truth?” he said. “What’s going on?”

Those are some of the questions students grappled with in their course, and this book is the result of their research, heated discussions, writing, revising and editing.  Rarely does a college course push students to consider such difficult ethical and global issues as the ethics of information, and even more rarely does a course or professor ask students to publish the results of their labor.  Dr. Dirk Hovorka, who designed this project and invited me to work with the students as a writing mentor, is to be commended for his efforts.  The students learned so much about their own and others’ use of information from many different perspectives, and perhaps most importantly, they learned to ask questions—hard questions, not just about the information or the machinery to obtain and use it, but about the ethics related to that information.

To organize their focus, the class divided into teams working in four areas: corporations, government, society, and international issues/conflict.  The students did everything, from research to writing to revising, to the final editing and publishing.  In their work, and in this book, the students explore such government-related  issues as how the FBI and CIA use and share information, the government processes involved in aggregating data to find terrorists, how the government uses information to identify terrorists but makes many errors. Other teams studied not only the information that corporations collect and use, but the information they omit (e.g., corporate accounting practices). Their texts discuss consumer privacy and data usage, job screening as a valid and ethical practice, and issues related to the stock market and ethics.  Some students grappled with issues of personal and social information when they realized they could be likely victims when ethical violations occur with information held as intellectual property, or when wars occur and the reported information is less than accurate or goes unreported. Realizing the complexities of the Information Age, the students actively pursued a course of asking intelligent and critical questions about who does what, and why those actions are ethical or not.  Underlying the entire project, of course, was the students’ growing understanding and appreciation of ethical behavior as necessary for efficient and honest work in business and society with all of its associated political, religious and economic concerns.

The Information Age is with us, and the more we know and understand about the processes and uses involved in gathering, analyzing, storing and using that information, the better we can deal with our daily lives and the world around us.  These students have approached important ethical considerations and come to conclusions based on solid critical thinking.  As future citizens and leaders in the business world, they will reap lifelong benefits from participating in this course and the publication of this book.  They met the challenge, struggled mightily with the information and the ethical issues they encountered, and in the end have gained valuable tools and education to deal with the future. As you read these chapters, think about your own relationship to information: who knows what about you? Will they use that information ethically—or not?

 

Anne Bliss, Ph.D.
Program for Writing and Rhetoric
University of Colorado at Boulder
December 2006