Career Opportunities

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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

A moral dilemma

January 11, 2002

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This year is sure to bring some interesting moral dilemmas to high-tech workers. The call for increased security, both of the nation and computer systems, is sure to put you in the unenviable position of monitoring the actions of those around you in ways never imagined in America before. As the point person on computer security, many of you will find yourselves having to decide between your career and your own ethics.

Who is watching?

The last few months have brought sweeping changes in the high-tech security landscape. The push for increased online privacy has been almost totally reversed and the government has been granted significant new abilities to monitor and track computer information. You are probably already beginning to be effected by some of these changes. Less stringent requirements on surveillance and wiretapping may require you to change your systems or work with law enforcement more frequently. Already the manufacturers of anti-virus and security applications are being asked to work with the government to insure that their products don’t tip off a suspect to electronic wiretaps. Encrypted information and encryption software itself is under closer scrutiny.

All these changes will add a new role to your high-tech career -- law enforcement liaison. You may find that you are privy to information that is considered very sensitive, not just to your company, but to government and the people being watched. You just might be placed in the position of knowing something you would rather not have to know.

How far do you go?

This new role will also require something even more important, a deep examination of your own morals and ethics. At what point do you decide that your work has moved beyond the typical high-tech roles and become an intrusion into the everyday lives of average people.

Right now, my own guidelines involve invoking the golden rule, “Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you.” With each new request you need to ask yourself, “How would I feel if I was the one being observed?” If you would be uncomfortable undergoing a certain type of surveillance you can guess that others would feel the same.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the surveillance won’t go forward, only that you have examined your own role, and culpability, in the surveillance. Unfortunately, if you don’t feel comfortable performing this role your choices are limited. You can try to get someone else to do the work, but if surveillance is becoming a major part of your duties, you may have to find another position. Certainly not a good situation in either case.

A personal decision

Personally, I had issues with monitoring email and web usage in a corporate environment long before the current situation. I believe that if you can’t trust employees to use the resources in a trustworthy manner than you shouldn’t hire them in the first place. If someone is found to be abusing the resources, fire them. Someone abusing the resources of the company is fairly obvious, even without direct monitoring of how they are abusing it.

Luckily, I have not been placed in a position where I have to institute high levels of user monitoring. If so, I would have to think long and hard about my involvement in such a project. Right now, I would probably try to make my feelings known in as positive a way as possible and ask the client to find someone else to do the work. It is a personal decision every high-tech worker will have to make at some point in their career. I believe that it is just as important to protect the personal privacy of innocent people as to catch the few criminals among them. Balance in all things is important, even in the high-tech world.

If someone hasn’t asked you to install monitoring software, key capture software or other surveillance measures yet, it is an almost forgone conclusion that they will. When it happens, I hope that each and every one of you will take the time to carefully consider your needs, the needs of law enforcement and your own sense of ethics in order to come to a decision that serves you, your company and your community in the best way possible.


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