My 11/23/08 Missoulian column
12/10/09 Update: Some people have found this article from searching on the latest TSA problem with not redacting their own documents. See also TSA can’t redact documents properly and White House Orders Agencies to Open Up.
Ethics is the study and consideration of living a “good life” and goes beyond simple moral discussions of what might be right and wrong. We probably deal with situations in the world of ethics every day, and we might use modern technology every day, too. What we might not be considering is how modern technology has thrown an interesting wrench into the machinery of ethics.
The field of the ethics of technology is growing fast and trying to keep up with the myriad situations technology provides for us. An important point to remember is that technology itself can’t have moral or ethical qualities, because technology is comprised of tools and tool making, but we deal with ethical dilemmas because we build and use those tools.
I’m not an academic ethicist by any means, and I won’t jump into the origins of different ethical traditions (as we don’t have a few months for that discussion), but here are a few everyday scenarios to consider in an ethical light. I don’t draw many conclusions; to me, these scenarios light up the “gray areas” and show there are few easy answers.
(Copying software, music and movies immediately comes to mind as an ethical dilemma, but considering laws regarding intellectual property and various technological ways that content producers attempt to prevent copying, that is a complex discussion for another time.)
So what if you find a flash drive on the sidewalk?
Your first impulse might be to try and find the owner. As a computer user, you might realize right away that the contents of the drive could be more valuable than the average wallet laying on the concrete. And that there might be enough information in files on the drive to find the owner.
But is it ethical to look on the drive and open a few files and see if you can find the name of the owner? Opening a flash drive is like opening a wallet to find the name of the owner on the driver’s license, right?
Well, almost. A wallet might have cash, debit and credit cards and personal information, but a flash drive might have personal and financial records such as tax returns, banking data, journals and work products. How many of the files should one look through to find contact information for the owner? What are your responsibilities if you read something that is private? Or possibly criminal?
It is illegal in Montana to access computer networks – and possibly by extension, computer files as well – without permission (MT Code 45-6-311). I’m not an attorney, but looking through files on the flash drive could be interpreted as illegal itself. So what is the greater good? Leave the drive there, take it somewhere and drop it off or try to find the owner yourself?
I’ve found several flash drives, and had to look through files – and keep my curiosity in check – in order to find contact information. Curiously enough, several owners were not in a big rush to get them back.
Once, I had to call an owner three times. I did that because of the nature of the financial records on the drive. Should I have bothered so much?
Same goes with cell phones and smartphones; what about looking through the contact list for someone to call? What else might be there? In my experience with several phones, there are contact numbers for mom and dad, but also contacts labeled with interesting or very nonflattering terms. Where do ethics and curiosity cross paths?
Another common scenario involves sharing a PC at home: what are the boundaries between users of a shared computer? Does it depend on their relationship, or who might actually own the PC? Or is it simply who happens to know the passwords?
Even “Dear Abby” deals with ethics of reading your spouse’s e-mail, as does Randy Cohen, the popular ethicist who writes for the New York Times and appears on National Public Radio. When can one ethically read someone else’s e-mail? Under suspicions of dishonesty, or a bona fide crime? And how is email different than paper letters? Does the ease of use and access to email make a difference in the ethical standards we hold ourselves to?
Those two scenarios don’t require much in the way of tech skills. Most computer users can open files and figure out a cell phone or smartphone (or find a local teenager to help). But what if one had more than the usual tech skills? What if you knew how to find sensitive information that others assumed was secure and protected?
For instance, what if you worked in a business that was involved in close negotiations with clients and adversaries? In the course of trading files that contained listings of discussion points and negotiation positions, what if you knew a few tricks to find information – edits, drafts and discussions – that the other party thought they had deleted? Is that ethical to use your skills to your and your businesses’ advantage?
What I’m talking about is called “metadata.” In this instance, metadata means normally hidden parts of files that contain edits and deleted information that isn’t really gone, it’s just hidden by the word processor. Finding out what your adversary really thought and assumed was deleted or redacted could be very advantageous to you.
Google “microsoft word metadata” and read some stories about how troublesome metadata can be. And Google “redacted pdf” to see how incorrect redactions sometimes reveal legal and government subterfuge. There are varying degrees of technical difficulty in finding metadata and reversing redactions: How far should one go and what are the reasons?
With many of these scenarios, there are also possibilities of going to the “dark side.” To go back to the flash drive story: what if you knew how to use the information in the files on the flash drive for identity theft? Should one think “finders, keepers” and take advantage of the situation because someone wasn’t smart enough to safeguard their files?
To go even further: What if one used aspects of the “dark side” to help? Does a very skilled person have the right to build some sort of “good” computer virus that will traverse the Internet, finding and deleting “bad” viruses and malware used by criminals? Even though that “good” virus will be invading computer systems – like a “bad” virus – without permission and could cause damage?
We’ll always wrestle with ethical dilemmas, and I think more so as the complexity and availability of technology makes questions and decisions – and the gray areas – more complex. But I think the more technological skills we might have, the higher ethical standards we should hold ourselves to.