Case II: Privacy Rights
In this case the central issue is the individual's right to privacy. Privacy is both a legal and an ethical issue because of the pertinent laws discussed in the previous section.
Donald works for the county records department as a computer records clerk, where he has access to files of property tax records. For a scientific study, a researcher, Ethel, has been granted access to the numerical portionbut not the corresponding namesof some records.
Ethel finds some information that she would like to use, but she needs the names and addresses corresponding with certain properties. Ethel asks Donald to retrieve the names and addresses so she can contact these people for more information and for permission to do further study.
Should Donald release the names and addresses?
Some Principles Involved
Here are some of the ethical principles involved in this case. What are other ethical principles? Which principles are subordinate to which others?
Job responsibility. Donald's job is to manage individual records, not to make determinations of appropriate use. Policy decisions should be made by someone of higher authority.
Use. The records are used for legitimate scientific study, not for profit or to expose sensitive data. (However, Ethel's access is authorized only for the numerical data, not for the private information relating property conditions to individuals.)
Possible misuse. Although he believes Ethel's motives are proper, Donald cannot guarantee that Ethel will use the data only to follow up on interesting data items.
Confidentiality. Had Ethel been intended to have names and addresses, they would have been given initially.
Tacit permission. Ethel has been granted permission to access parts of these records for research purposes, so she should have access to complete her research.
Propriety. Because Ethel has no authority to obtain names and addresses and because the names and addresses represent the confidential part of the data, Donald should deny Ethel's request for access.
A rule-deontologist would argue that privacy is an inherent good and that one should not violate the privacy of another. Therefore, Donald should not release the names.
Extensions to the Basic Case
We can consider several possible extensions to the scenario. These extensions probe other ethical issues involved in this case.
Suppose Donald were responsible for determining allowable access to the files. What ethical issues would be involved in his deciding whether to grant access to Ethel?
Should Ethel be allowed to contact the individuals involved? That is, should the health department release individuals' names to a researcher? What are the ethical issues for the health department to consider?
Suppose Ethel contacts the individuals to ask their permission, and one-third of them respond giving permission, one-third respond denying permission, and one-third do not respond. Ethel claims that at least one-half of the individuals are needed to make a valid study. What options are available to Ethel? What are the ethical issues involved in deciding which of these options to pursue?
To show that ethics can be context dependent, let us consider some variations of the situation. Notice that these changes affect the domain of the problem, but not the basic question: access to personal data.
If the domain were medical records, the case would be covered by HIPAA, and so we would first consider a legal issue, not an ethical one. Notice, however, how the case changes subtly depending on the medical condition involved. You may reach one conclusion if the records deal with "ordinary" conditions (colds, broken legs, muscle injuries), but a different conclusion if the cases are for sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS. You may also reach a different conclusion if the research involves genetic conditions of which the subject may be unaware (for example, being a carrier for Huntington's disease or hemophilia).
But change the context once more, and consider web surfing habits. If Donald works for an Internet service provider and could determine all the web sites a person had visited, would that be fair to disclose?