Confronting Information Ethics in the New
“Americans need to step back from the daily drum of privacy stories and absorb the big picture: the United States is at risk of turning into a full-fledged surveillance society. The fact is, Orwell's vision of "Big Brother" is now, for the first time, technologically possible” 1 .
College seniors graduating in 2007 live amidst a vast sea of information almost constantly accessible through increasingly convergent technologies. Students are aware that data mining for marketing, political campaigns, consumer behavior, and terrorist risk assessment is now at levels never before seen. They realize that surveillance is everywhere, from government monitoring of phone calls, emails, and international travel patterns to corporate monitoring of web-site visits, communications, physical location, and computer keystrokes 2 . All these students have a sense of ethics, of what is right and what is wrong. But in our increasingly technology-dependent world, they have had little time or opportunity to examine how information is shaping the ethics of their age.
Much of the technological collection of information is hidden or considered “just part of life,” and the uses of technology to access and analyze information remain largely unexamined. As a consequence, college students are realists about "the way the world is": that employers will read their email, that there is no such thing as privacy of communication, or location or, decisions, all activities in the public sphere (and much of the private sphere) are recorded, analyzed and stored for future data-mining or analysis. Many students accept these activities as necessary to maximize corporate productivity, catch criminals, and prevent terrorism.
The purpose of the class was not to debate these issues (though that did frequently happen!) or to "teach ethics." Rather the class was founded on a framework 3 within which moral dilemmas arising from the increasing collection, distribution and analysis of information by companies and governments can be analyzed. This was not a class in which we debated whether the use of specific information for a specific function was "correct" or "incorrect." Rather, the students engaged in examining how valid, sound, and persuasive arguments 4 for policies or decisions regarding information and its uses can be constructed. Although ethical discussions are often rarified philosophical debates between unitary ethical stances, Whetstone's triparite prescription for servant leadership 5 provided grounding in practical, policy-oriented perspectives. The class examined different arguments and rhetorical styles (e.g. Mellow's justification for the Iraq War 6 ). The dimensions of (mis)communication were illustrated in nature of lying 7 and truth 8 , and the finer point of manipulating information "short of lying." 9 Armed with knowledge that different fundamental axioms and assumptions will result in different logical outcomes, the class examined potential moral problems in the representation of statistical and graphical information 10 . Current surveillance technologies and policies as well as the classification and obfuscation of scientific and medical information were discussed. Bandura's theory of moral disengagement 11 and the psychology of moral judgment versus actual behavior 12 were examined as a means of explaining how right-minded people can perform unethical actions. Finally, the balance between ethical perspectives based on utility, consequences, and duty and duty, and positions based on fairness, and virtues (e.g. honesty, trust, loyalty, integrity, and courage) became far more real and difficult to determine as they wrestled with the difficult process of taking abstract ethical theories and crafting "real-world" policies and guidelines.
A slight shift in perspective, from the technologies themselves, to the ethics of the information that is being collected, analyzed, used, and distributed changes the discussion in significant ways. Questions such as: Do public/private spheres matter? How should intellectual property be considered in a ubiquitous digital environment? Must there be trade-off between privacy and security? are all complex and often contextual issues. Each of us make daily moral decisions, but rarely are we asked to explain or justify those decisions from an ethical standpoint. The business environment these students are entering is under ever-greater scrutiny from many different stakeholders. These business students will be well-served by an ability to recognize, justify, and discuss persuasively as they react to, and create policies regarding information in their professional and personal lives, and as citizens.
This book was entirely researched, written, edited, and published by seniors in a Leeds School of Business ethics seminar titled "The Ethics of Information: Snooping, Hacking, Surveillance, Lying and other Forms of (mis)Communication." It represents a considerable amount of thought and work by all the students in the class. Students explored current news and academic literature to identify domains in which information, or the lack thereof, raises ethical questions. Each group of authors selected topics to research, selected papers and articles about their topics of interest, and led class discussions. Topics included a gamut of domains including the role of politics in science, RFID chip technology, socio-tropic crises, search engine technology, stealth marketing, and the ethics of images to name just a few. These authors realized the depth, breadth and speed of change of the issues surrounding information in business, government, and society, and the difficulty in developing coherent ethical policies.
These are bright and talented students on the verge of entering a world quite different from the academic environment in which they have lived. These papers required that they challenge some of their own beliefs and take a position on the issues – a difficult task when there is no “right answer” to which they can refer. But this process is a critical component of education – participation in the debate. These students now have a greater awareness of the benefits and risks inherent in the “Age of Information” and have examined the implications of not addressing the ethical considerations of the uses of information. This awareness differentiates them from most seniors in a critical 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
1 Stanley, J., and Steinhardt, B. "Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society," American Civil Liberties Union New York, 2003.
3 Such as http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html
4 Tavinii, H.T., Ethics and Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communication Technology, 2nd edition, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, 2007
5 Whetstone, J.T. "How Virtue Fits Within Business Ethics," Journal of Business Ethics (33) 2001, pp 101-114.
6 Mellow, D. “Iraq: A Morally Justified War”, Journal of Philosophy, 23(3) 2006 pp 293-310
7 Serban, G. Lying: Man's Second Nature Praeger, Westport, 2001.
8 Frankfurt, H.G. On Truth Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2006.
9 Frankfurt, H.G. On Bullshit Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.
10 Huff, D. How to Lie with Statistics WW Norton, New York, 1954.
11 Bandura, A. "Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities," International Journal of Psychology (31) 1996, pp 3881-3895.
12 West, T., Ravenscroft, S.P., and Shrader, C.B. "Cheating and Moral Judgment in the College Classroom: A Natural Experiment," Journal of Business Ethics (54