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Chapter: Security in Computing : Legal and Ethical Issues in Computer Security

Ethical Issues in Computer Security

This final section helps clarify thinking about the ethical issues involved in computer security. We offer no answers. Rather, after listing and explaining some ethical principles, we present several case studies to which the principles can be applied.

Ethical Issues in Computer Security


This final section helps clarify thinking about the ethical issues involved in computer security. We offer no answers. Rather, after listing and explaining some ethical principles, we present several case studies to which the principles can be applied. Each case is followed by a list of possible ethical issues involved, although the list is not necessarily all-inclusive or conclusive. The primary purpose of this section is to explore some of the ethical issues associated with computer security and to show how ethics functions as a control.


Differences Between the Law and Ethics


As we noted earlier, law is not always the appropriate way to deal with issues of human behavior. It is difficult to define a law to preclude only the events we want it to. For example, a law that restricts animals from public places must be refined to permit guide dogs for the blind. Lawmakers, who are not computer professionals, are hard pressed to think of all the exceptions when they draft a law concerning computer affairs. Even when a law is well conceived and well written, its enforcement may be difficult. The courts are overburdened, and prosecuting relatively minor infractions may be excessively time consuming relative to the benefit.


Thus, it is impossible or impractical to develop laws to describe and enforce all forms of behavior acceptable to society. Instead, society relies on ethics or morals to prescribe generally accepted standards of proper behavior. (In this section the terms ethics and morals are used interchangeably.) An ethic is an objectively defined standard of right and wrong. Ethical standards are often idealistic principles because they focus on one objective. In a given situation, however, several moral objectives may be involved, so people have to determine an action that is appropriate considering all the objectives. Even though religious groups and professional organizations promote certain standards of ethical behavior, ultimately each person is responsible for deciding what to do in a specific situation. Therefore, through our choices, each of us defines a personal set of ethical practices. A set of ethical principles is called an ethical system.


An ethic is different from a law in several important ways. First, laws apply to everyone: One may disagree with the intent or the meaning of a law, but that is not an excuse for disobeying the law. Second, the courts have a regular process for determining which law supersedes which if two laws conflict. Third, the laws and the courts identify certain actions as right and others as wrong. From a legal standpoint, anything that is not illegal is right. Finally, laws can be enforced to rectify wrongs done by unlawful behavior.


By contrast, ethics are personal: two people may have different frameworks for making moral judgments. What one person deems perfectly justifiable, another would never consider doing. Second, ethical positions can and often do come into conflict. As an example, the value of a human life is very important in most ethical systems. Most people would not cause the sacrifice of one life, but in the right context some would approve of sacrificing one person to save another, or one to save many others. The value of one life cannot be readily measured against the value of others, and many ethical decisions must be founded on precisely this ambiguity. Yet, there is no arbiter of ethical positions: when two ethical goals collide, each person must choose which goal is dominant. Third, two people may assess ethical values differently; no universal standard of right and wrong exists in ethical judgments. Nor can one person simply look to what another has done as guidance for choosing the right thing to do. Finally, there is no enforcement for ethical choices. These differences are summarized in Table 11-3.

Studying Ethics


The study of ethics is not easy because the issues are complex. Sometimes people confuse ethics with religion because many religions supply a framework in which to make ethical choices. However, ethics can be studied apart from any religious connection. Difficult choices would be easier to make if there were a set of universal ethical principles to which everyone agreed. But the variety of social, cultural, and religious beliefs makes the identification of such a set of universal principles impossible. In this section we explore some of these problems and then consider how understanding ethics can help in dealing with issues of computer security.


Ethics and Religion


Ethics is a set of principles or norms for justifying what is right or wrong in a given situation. To understand what ethics is we may start by trying to understand what it is not. Ethical principles are different from religious beliefs. Religion is based on personal notions about the creation of the world and the existence of controlling forces or beings. Many moral principles are embodied in the major religions, and the basis of a personal morality is a matter of belief and conviction, much the same as for religions. However, two people with different religious backgrounds may develop the same ethical philosophy, while two exponents of the same religion might reach opposite ethical conclusions in a particular situation. Finally, we can analyze a situation from an ethical perspective and reach ethical conclusions without appealing to any particular religion or religious framework. Thus, it is important to distinguish ethics from religion.


Ethical Principles Are Not Universal


Ethical values vary by society, and from person to person within a society. For example, the concept of privacy is important in Western cultures. But in Eastern cultures, privacy is not desirable because people associate privacy with having something to hide. Not only is a Westerner's desire for privacy not understood but in fact it has a negative connotation. Therefore, the attitudes of people may be affected by culture or background.


Also, an individual's standards of behavior may be influenced by past events in life. A person who grew up in a large family may place greater emphasis on personal control and ownership of possessions than would an only child who seldom had to share. Major events or close contact with others can also shape one's ethical position. Despite these differences, the underlying principles of how to make moral judgment are the same.


Although these aspects of ethics are quite reasonable and understandable, they lead people to distrust ethics because it is not founded on basic principles all can accept. Also, people from a scientific or technical background expect precision and universality.


Ethics Does Not Provide Answers


Ethical pluralism is recognizing or admitting that more than one position may be ethically justifiableeven equally soin a given situation. Pluralism is another way of noting that two people may legitimately disagree on issues of ethics. We expect and accept disagreement in such areas as politics and religion.

However, in the scientific and technical fields, people expect to find unique, unambiguous, and unequivocal answers. In science, one answer must be correct or demonstrable in some sense. Science has provided life with fundamental explanations. Ethics is rejected or misunderstood by some scientists because it is "soft," meaning that it has no underlying framework or it does not depend on fundamental truths.


One need only study the history of scientific discovery to see that science itself is founded largely on temporary truths. For many years the earth was believed to be the center of the solar system. Ptolemy developed a complicated framework of epicycles, orbits within orbits of the planets, to explain the inconsistency of observed periods of rotation. Eventually his theory was superseded by the Copernican model of planets that orbit the sun. Similarly, Einstein's relativity theory opposed the traditional quantum basis of physics. Science is littered with theories that have fallen from favor as we learned or observed more and as new explanations were proposed. As each new theory is proposed, some people readily accept the new proposal, while others cling to the old.


But the basis of science is presumed to be "truth." A statement is expected to be provably true, provably false, or unproven, but a statement can never be both true and false. Scientists are uncomfortable with ethics because ethics does not provide these clean distinctions.


Worse, there is no higher authority of ethical truth. Two people may disagree on their opinion of the ethics of a situation, but there is no one to whom to appeal for a final determination of who is "right." Conflicting answers do not deter one from considering ethical issues in computer security. Nor do they excuse us from making and defending ethical choices.


Ethical Reasoning


Most people make ethical judgments often, perhaps daily. (Is it better to buy from a hometown merchant or from a nationwide chain? Should I spend time with a volunteer organization or with my friends? Is it acceptable to release sensitive data to someone who might not have justification for access to that data?) Because we all engage in ethical choice, we should clarify how we do this so that we can learn to apply the principles of ethics in professional situations, as we do in private life.


Study of ethics can yield two positive results. First, in situations in which we already know what is right and what is wrong, ethics should help us justify our choice. Second, if we do not know the ethical action to take in a situation, ethics can help us identify the issues involved so that we can make reasoned judgments.


Examining a Case for Ethical Issues


How, then, can issues of ethical choice in computer security be approached? Here are several steps to making and justifying an ethical choice.


           Understand the situation. Learn the facts of the situation. Ask questions of interpretation or clarification. Attempt to find out whether any relevant forces have not been considered.


           Know several theories of ethical reasoning. To make an ethical choice, you have to know how those choices can be justified.


           List the ethical principles involved. What different philosophies could be applied in this case? Do any of these include others?


           Determine which principles outweigh others. This is a subjective evaluation. It often involves extending a principle to a logical conclusion or determining cases in which one principle clearly supersedes another.



The most important steps are the first and third. Too often people judge a situation on incomplete information, a practice that leads to judgments based on prejudice, suspicion, or misinformation. Considering all the different ethical issues raised forms the basis for evaluating the competing interests of step four.


Examples of Ethical Principles


There are two different schools of ethical reasoning: one based on the good that results from actions and one based on certain prima facie duties of people.


Consequence-Based Principles


The teleological theory of ethics focuses on the consequences of an action. The action to be chosen is that which results in the greatest future good and the least harm. For example, if a fellow student asks you to write a program he was assigned for a class, you might consider the good (he will owe you a favor) against the bad (you might get caught, causing embarrassment and possible disciplinary action, plus your friend will not learn the techniques to be gained from writing the program, leaving him deficient). The negative consequences clearly outweigh the positive, so you would refuse. Teleology is the general name applied to many theories of behavior, all of which focus on the goal, outcome, or consequence of the action.


There are two important forms of teleology. Egoism is the form that says a moral judgment is based on the positive benefits to the person taking the action. An egoist weighs the outcomes of all possible acts and chooses the one that produces the most personal good for him or her with the least negative consequence. The effects on other people are not relevant. For example, an egoist trying to justify the ethics of writing shoddy computer code when pressed for time might argue as follows. "If I complete the project quickly, I will satisfy my manager, which will bring me a raise and other good things. The customer is unlikely to know enough about the program to complain, so I am not likely to be blamed. My company's reputation may be tarnished, but that will not be tracked directly to me. Thus, I can justify writing shoddy code."


The principle of utilitarianism is also an assessment of good and bad results, but the reference group is the entire universe. The utilitarian chooses that action that will bring the greatest collective good for all people with the least possible negative for all. In this situation, the utilitarian would assess personal good and bad, good and bad for the company, good and bad for the customer, and, perhaps, good and bad for society at large. For example, a developer designing software to monitor smokestack emissions would need to assess its effects on everyone breathing. The utilitarian might perceive greater good to everyone by taking the time to write high-quality code, despite the negative personal consequence of displeasing management.


Rule-Based Principles


Another ethical theory is deontology, which is founded in a sense of duty. This ethical principle states that certain things are good in and of themselves. These things that are naturally good are good rules or acts, which require no higher justification. Something just is good; it does not have to be judged for its effect.


Examples (from Frankena [FRA73]) of intrinsically good things are


truth, knowledge, and true opinion of various kinds; understanding, wisdom


just distribution of good and evil; justice


pleasure, satisfaction; happiness; life, consciousness


peace, security, freedom


good reputation, honor, esteem; mutual affection, love, friendship, cooperation; morally good dispositions or virtues


beauty, aesthetic experience


Rule-deontology is the school of ethical reasoning that believes certain universal, self-evident, natural rules specify our proper conduct. Certain basic moral principles are adhered to because of our responsibilities to one another; these principles are often stated as rights: the right to know, the right to privacy, the right to fair compensation for work. Sir David Ross [ROS30] lists various duties incumbent on all human beings:


fidelity, or truthfulness


reparation, the duty to recompense for a previous wrongful act


gratitude, thankfulness for previous services or kind acts


justice, distribution of happiness in accordance with merit


beneficence, the obligation to help other people or to make their lives better


nonmaleficence, not harming others


self-improvement, to become continually better, both in a mental sense and in a moral sense (for example, by not committing a wrong a second time)


Another school of reasoning is based on rules derived by each individual. Religion, teaching, experience, and reflection lead each person to a set of personal moral principles. The answer to an ethical question is found by weighing values in terms of what a person believes to be right behavior.


Summary of Ethical Theories


We have seen two bases of ethical theories, each applied in two ways. Simply stated, the two bases are consequence based and rule based, and the applications are either individual or universal. These theories are depicted in Table 11-4.

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