Monthly Archives: September 2013

If No One Says Nay, The Government Assumes Yea

Summary:

The government has recently been getting a lot of heat over their data-gathering activities.  In response President Obama has requested that the various branches of the intelligence community strive for greater transparency.  As part of that endeavor there has been released an official opinion by Judge Claire Eagan, which essentially explains why she re-authorized the collection of phone records from various, undisclosed, phone companies, over a period of three months.  The article I read today was not, however, that opinion.  It was instead this article, which focuses on the fact that when they were asked in the past for the records apparently none of the phone companies protested, even though there were clear channels for doing so.  This played a part in the re-authorizing of the process more recently.  What is the ethical issue?  Well, just because it’s legal does that make it right?  And is the government so big that companies can’t protest even if they wanted to?  Well, let’s think about this, okay?

Analysis:

Here’s the deal: since 2006 there has been a law which allows the government to collect phone records from phone companies for 90 days.  Every 90 days this law is renewed, and so the government has had access to phone records for the past 6-7 years, relatively uninterrupted.  Because of all the heat recently Judge Eagan defended her position, saying that it is legal, and has been uncontested all this time, so there’s no reason to not re-authorize it.  This all sounds well and good, but there are at least three things which have to be noted before thinking this through.  First is that while the phone companies may not have protested, Yahoo claims that it vehemently protested when it was ordered to hand over it’s records, but those protests (which are sealed records) were overruled.  Second is that according to Jameel Jaffer, of the ACLU, there have been significant changes in precedent since 2006, including a case involving GPS, which significantly changes the legal landscape, and necessitate a more rigid re-examination of the law than that given by Judge Eagan.  Finally, Judge Eagan’s opinion admitted that there have been times when the National Security Agency (NSA), the agency in charge of all the data-collection, has circumvented the limits placed upon them, such as the need for warrant, but stated that measures have been taken to correct the problem.  (Information regarding Jameel Jaffar and this last point were taken from this article).  Let’s look at each of these issues in turn.

First, the protests of Yahoo.  It may very well be that the phone companies did not protest to giving over their records.  But if Yahoo did protest, and it made no difference, then perhaps the phone companies simply didn’t see the point.  It becomes like the school bully who is messing up a kid, and when the teacher comes up and asks if anything is wrong the bully says no, and the bullied kid is too scared to say otherwise.  The fact that Yahoo protested and was shut down speaks volumes about the options available to companies on the receiving end of the NSA’s data-collection.  If they can’t protest effectively, then it would make sense that they wouldn’t even try, since protesting would just be a waste of time and money.  The government has effectively shut up any opposition with the threat of failure, especially now that Yahoo has failed.  This is clearly not a situation that we want our country to be in, one where the government can do what it wants, and no one can say nay.

Second: the ignoring of precedent.  This ties in with the previous point, in that they both deal with changing times.  The original phones record collection law was passed back in 2006.  That was 7 years ago now, and things change.  Phone companies didn’t think to much about giving up records back then, but Internet providers think giving up the same information is highly inappropriate.  In the same way the legal scene in 2006 wasn’t very preoccupied with privacy, but now it is.  Many new laws have been passed which significantly change the way that the government is allowed to interact with its people, and laws which are coming in from the past ought to change to reflect that.  To simply ignore the fact that things have changed is very irresponsible, and undermines the transparency that the government is aiming for.

Finally, the ignoring of rules by the NSA.  This is probably the most serious of the three problems.  The fact that the NSA has at times failed to comply with standards placed on them with regard to the handling of the information they receive in troubling.  By giving them access to the information they have we are very explicitly trusting them to not use that information inappropriately.  By breaking that trust they have made it impossible to ever truly trust them again.  And if we can’t trust them to use our information responsibly, then they should not have access to it.  Proverbs 11:3 says that “Honesty guides good people; dishonesty destroys treacherous people.” (NLT).  They have been dishonest in their use of our information, and that will ultimately lead to destruction.  Who exactly will be destroyed remains to be seen, but dishonesty cannot lead to anything but problems.

Conclusion:

There are quite a few problems with NSA being re-given access to America’s phone records.  There doesn’t not appear to be any true way to protest the records seizure.  It may not be completely legal in view of recent developments in law. And the NSA has demonstrated that they cannot be trusted with the amount of information they are being given.  What should be done about this? Well, the NSA needs to be limited.  I still hold that they do good work, and they need information to do what they do.  But they do need stronger limits, not simply to keep them from misusing the information, but also to keep watch and make sure that they don’t try to get around their limits.  Also, there needs to be stronger protocols regarding the acquisition of a warrant before gathering information, so that they only get information they need.  We need to control what they get, not only what they use of what they get.  They cannot go around safeguards and browse through phone records if they have not already been given those records.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Government Surveillance Claims Another Victim

Summary:

It seems that I will have to delve more deeply into the issue of government surveillance.  Up until this point I have said that  thought that the government should be allowed a certain amount of liberty in data-gathering.  I thought that as long as they had clear limits on what they could do, and did not exceed those limits, using what they learned responsibly, then it would be okay to let the government snoop a little.  Today I’m re-examining that opinion.  I read today about a company called Groklaw.  I had never heard of the company before, but apparently they provided commentary on legal issues regarding open-source projects.  When the manager of the site heard about what happened to Lavabit, she felt that because of the government’s actions Groklaw would be unable to operate.  Groklaw required e-mail to function, and if the government was snooping in, the work would be stifled beyond functionality, and so the site was discontinued.  Today I want to talk about this, and what exactly it is that the government should and should not be allowed to do. Let’s get to it 🙂

Analysis:

The big question here is the argument of privacy vs. security.  The more safe you are, the less privacy you have.  The more privacy you have, the less security the government can provide.  In the past I was of the mind that privacy is not that important, because to me it’s not.  I’m not a private person, neither do I hide things, at least not anymore.  I’ve trained myself to have no secrets, just things I don’t reveal due to common decency.  I don’t feel violated when people go through my stuff, and don’t care if they know my darkness of my past.  All this to say that it is difficult for me to empathize with people who really are disturbed by these things.  Today’s article taught me a lot about that which I don’t understand.  I want to talk about three of those things: the clear effect of the government’s actions, the human need for privacy, and problem of government control.

First, let’s think about the harm that the government has been causing.  I do not think that the ends and the means of an endeavor are related.  They must both be right, and one does not justify the other.  With that said, just because government interventions have caused three companies (Lavabit, Silent Circle, Groklaw) to shut down or amend their services does not mean that what the government is doing is wrong.  However, it must be remembered that the role of government includes helping to improve the economy.  If the actions of the government are stifling the economy, however well-meant those actions, then they need to be either changed or stopped completely.  I still hold that the government needs to have some surveillance in order to do its job, but at this point it seems clear that the amount of surveillance going on is too much, and is causing perhaps more harm than good.  And the harm goes beyond simply the economy.  It extends to humanitarian issues.

In her article the manager of Groklaw talks about the basic human need for privacy, how people need a sense of being alone in order to function.  I’m naturally introverted, so I understand this sensibility.  I like being with other people, but I need time to myself every once in a while.  I’ve known this is true, but I never really connected it with the Internet.  Perhaps because my online presence is so minuscule I don’t think about the fact that someone might be watching me…  Or perhaps, because I spent so much of my past looking at things on the Internet that I ought not I got used to the feeling that someone is ALWAYS watching me.  When I’m on the Internet I don’t feel anonymous or secure, but rather I feel like everything I say or post is eventually going to be seen, so I walk on eggshells anyways.  Either way, it doesn’t bother me to think that someone might be reading my e-mails.  But, I can understand how that would be extremely uncomfortable for others.  With this in mind, the fact that the government not only can read, but has been reading, people’s e-mails takes on a new significance for me.  True, security from terrorists is important.  But if that security comes at the cost of peace of mind and being able to live your life effectively, then it’s all for naught.  There’s no point proecting a life that not worth living.  But then the final problem arises, which is the problem of government controls.

Again from Groklaw’s manager, a good point arises:  What to do when is the government gets too big, too controlling, too powerful?  The answer, of course, is to change the way the government operates. But how to do that if the government can see and hear everything you do?  Groklaw’s manager correctly points out that if the government is too powerful, and you’re trying to weaken it, then if it knows what you’re doing it will be able to accuse you of petty crimes and take you out of commission.  If the government watches everything, then there is no way to resist the government.  If you can’t resist the government, then the government can do whatever it wants, and that will lead ultimately to a totalitarian government.

Conclusion:

The government has been getting steadily bigger and more controlling and watchful since 9/11, with even old data gathering laws gaining new meaning and far-reaching powers.  I was of the mind that these new powers were okay, since they were for the purpose of keeping the American people safe.  But I have now been convinced that the amount of damage these new governmental licences are causing is not worth the security they are supposedly providing.  For the reason of evident effects, basis human dignity, and the ability to stand against the government if necessary, it must be admitted that the government has been too zealous in its control.  Matthew 10:16 says “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  I have been as innocent as a dove, but not as shrewd as a snake.  I have trusted, but not been discerning.  I am now taking steps to fix this attitude, and not realize that the government need better guideline to keep it in check, and better ways to make sure it actually follows the guidelines that are set out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Apparently “Like” Now Equals “Support”

Summary:

Well, today’s article is about constitutional rights on the Internet.  B.J. Roberts is a sheriff in Virginia, an in 2009 he was up for re-election.  He won the election, and afterwards he fired several of his employees.  He said it was to hire other, perhaps more qualified, employees, or simply because he did not consider the employees a good fit with the office.  Several of the employees protested, saying that they had been fired because they had “liked” the Facebook page of Roberts’ opponent in the election, and that their dismissal violated their freedom of speech.  At first the courts sided with Roberts, but in the court of appeals it was decided that “liking” a Facebook does indeed fall under the protection of free speech.  So, how does ethics fall into this?  Well, read on and you’ll see.

Analysis:

So, where does “liking” a Facebook page fall under the First Amendment? Well, in the past court-rulings have established that putting a political sign in your front lawn is free-speech, and therefore you cannot be fired for that.  The court’s ruling put “liking” under the same category.  But is that really right?  The court which originally tried the case ruled that “liking” a Facebook page does not constitute free speech since there is no content to it.  In order to be free speech there would have to be some sort of content attached to it, such as a post on the site.  It was only when the case reached the court of appeals that it was ruled free speech to simply “like” a page, citing placing a sign in the yard as a supporting example.  So, which court was right in its ruling?  After thinking through this issue I think I have to side with the appeals court.  In the first place I have to think about what it actually means for something to be “free speech”. Does it simply mean that you cannot be prosecuted for what you say?  Or does it mean that you have to take responsibility for the things that you say?  I think it’s the latter.  Even if there are no consequences to “liking” a Facebook page, by doing so you are making a statement, a statement which at least implicitly says that you approve of the content of that page.  In Matthew 12:36 it says that “…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak”.  I think that this includes the pages that people “like” on Facebook.  A lot of times people, including myself, “like” a whole lot of pages, and do not think about what it means to attach their names there.  We cannot be prosecuted for free speech, but we can be judged for it, and the decision to classify “liking” something on Facebook as free speech helps solidify that action as what it is: a very direct statement of support.  This decision ought to make people think more carefully before hitting the like button, about what message they are sending to the Internet at large.  On the other hand, there are ways to make it impossible to see a Facebook page unless you “like” it first, as detailed in this article, which raises a whole slew of ethical issues in its own right.  But if you like a page without seeing it first, realize it’s trash, but forget to unlike it, it is good to know that you cannot be prosecuted for it, since you don’t actually support it.  Obviously you should still try to clean up your “likes” to show what you actually support, but if you forget one or two things, at least it’s not the end of the world.

Conclusion:

In the end, “liking” a Facebook page is just what it says:  an indication that you like something, and therefore an expression of support.  You might not actually like everything you “like”, but that is the message you send.  As such it is goo that the government is acknowledging the power of a “like” and classifying it as free speech.  This protects people from being targeted for things that they support, or even don’t support but were tricked into “liking”.  In a world of ambiguity, it is goo to have some things set in stone, and protected.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Border Patrols… It’s a Trap!

Summary:

So, in light of what I’ve been saying over the last few posts about giving the government some leeway in the pursuit of terrorists, today’s is about how those special freedoms can be abused.  The government has been using some special power they have at the border to do things that those special powers were not originally meant for.   So, let’s talk about some ethical issues.

Analysis:

     Here’s the story.  There’s this private in the army who leaked a bunch of documents to Wikileaks, was arrested, and is in jail.  There’s this other guy who was part of the fundraising team for the private’s defense.  This fund-raiser guy, David House, went on a trip to Mexico, and on the way back he was detained at the border, had all of his electronic equipment was confiscated, which was copied and analyzed by the Army Criminal Investigation Command (ACIC) over a period of seven months.  The problem?  They did not have a warrant to search his equipment, nor any indication that he had been involved in criminal activity.  So how was he able to be detained as he was?  Well, the United States Border Patrol (USBP) has a certain amount of leeway in the way they conduct searches.  Since there is a lot of smuggling that happens on the US border, courts have been willing to allow the USBP to conduct unauthorized searches as a means of deterrence and prevention.  When the ACIC realized they needed information on House they put an alert on the government network saying that if he crossed the border they were to confiscate his electronics for processing.  in other words, because the government could not examine his things without a warrant, and they did not have enough information to get one, they used the special permissions of the border patrol as a work around, getting themselves the information they needed deviously, and yet still legally.

What’s the big problem here?  For me it is not that they government used the border patrol to get information.  If there had been anything suspicious about House, then I might even uphold their decision.  No, the problem is that there was not reason to suspect House of any wrongdoing, and so the government used its powers to try and find something to convict him of.  They were not looking for evidence of a crime, but rather a crime they could evidence.  I’ve talked a lot about giving the government the right to look where they need to to stop terrorism and stuff.  I have not talked as much about the possibility, perhaps even surety, of those rights being misused.  The government is not good, neither is it bad.  It is neutral, and the actions it takes are shaped by the people in government who are in positions of authority.  These people are sinners just like everybody else, and as such they will by default misuse their powers.  That’s pretty much a given.  Therefore it is necessary to limit their extent of the government powers, while still letting the do what thy need to do.  In California this same issue has come up, in a case very much like the one involving House, and as a result a ruling has been made saying that before electronic equipment can be searched there has to be reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  This is a step in the right direction.  I would add to that rules such as that the special permissions at the border apply only to people the Border suspects, and that the information the Borer collects is confidential, an can not be shared with other agencies except as is necessary for national security.  Also, as this report points out, the authority of the border patrol should be confined to the border, and not extend too far inland.

Summary:

In the book named after himself Daniel makes some enemies, not because he did anything wrong, but because he did everything right, and as a result the king honored him.  In response the other wise men plotted to get rid of Daniel, and the first thing they did was try and find something, anything, they could pin on him.  They found nothing, and so they changed the law of the land in such a way that they knew he would break it.  This is what I thought of when I read about the case of David House.  People using their authority wrongly, as a tool of self-promotion, rather than civil protection. May our country be protected from the wiles of those who would use their positions to further their own ends, rather than to protect their people.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hacking: Does the Name Really Matter?

Summary:

The last four blog past have all been centered around the NSA controversy, so I was happy when I realized that today’s article has nothing to do with that.  Today’s article is about the use of the term “Ethical Hacker” in the computing world.  The position of the writers of the article is that prefixing the term “ethical” onto “hacker” really is meaningless, and doesn’t need to be used.  My position is slightly different.  I agree with the article that ethics doesn’t not really play a part in the technical term “hacker”, but I would believe that the title “ethical hacker” can still be used legitimately.

Analysis:

As computer security systems have improved there has also arisen a subset of computer techies who dedicate their lives to finding ways to break through that same security.  Some do it for nefarious reasons, looking to acquire bank account passwords, or sensitive business information, or the like.  A great number of others do it simply for the thrill and recognition of having cracked a particularly difficult code.  But regardless of the reason, the fact remains that it is very hard (read: impossible) for a corporation trying to protect its data to think of every possible way that a hacker could exploit vulnerabilities, especially since hackers tend to be able to think of very innovative ways of working their chosen craft.  As such companies have begun to hire the hackers themselves to try and break the company’s security, and then report ways to shore up the found weaknesses.  As hackers generally have a bad reputation in the computer world, it has become relatively standard practice to refer to those who hack for criminal reasons as “blackhat hackers”, or just the regular hackers, while the ones who hack to help improve security are called “whitehat hackers”, or “ethical hackers”.

This brings us to the subject of our article today.  The argument of the writers is largely a semantic one.  They present five different arguments for the illogicality of the use of the term “ethical hacker”.  These arguments are as follows:  1.  The hacker is a hacker no matter what else you do.  if you think of a hacker as a criminal, then adding “ethical” makes no sense, while if you think of it simply as someone likes to mess with computer systems then there’s nothing ethical about it, just like there’s nothing ethical about any other interest or hobby.  2.  Adding “ethical” doesn’t really do anything to help the image of hackers.  3.  Hacking isn’t about right or wrong, but rather about breaking into computer systems, for whatever reason.  “Ethical” is not part of the equation.  4.  Many people have criminal records for hacking which were caused by dumb laws on the subject.  This does not justify or require a change in the term used.  5.  Sometimes people talk about an “ethical hacker” as someone who was a non-ethical hacker, but then change over to help people.  This doesn’t change what he does, only who he’s doing it for.  The article asserts that in the end there is no difference between a regular hacker and an “ethical hacker” is function, simply in their attitudes toward what they are doing, therefor calling a hacker “ethical” makes as much sense as calling someone an “ethical locksmith” (their actual example),

I agree with them that there is “technically” no morality or ethics attached to hacking.  A hacker is by definition simply someone who breaks through computer security, and that would apply equally whether they are hacking an ATM or just destroying their own firewalls in their basement for fun.  The problem in the argument of the article is that it does not give proper attention to the denotation vs. connotation of words.  Yes, there is nothing wrong with hacking… except for the fact that whenever one says “hacking” the word is immediately associated with all the stigma attached to those people who use hacking for criminal purposes.  The attachment of the term “ethical” therefore does not actually refer to the type of actions performed by the hacker, but rather to the type of person that the hacker is.  It is a retronym.  Originally all hackers would have been thought of as “ethical hackers”, but now there is a need to distinguish between ethical and non-ethical hackers, the good guys and the bad guys.  After all, 1 Peter 2:12 tells us to “keep [our] conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against [us] as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  That would be very hard if when people hear that we’re a “hacker” they think that we steal confidential information, instead of simply stress-testing the company’s computer security.

Conclusion:

The writer’s of this article are correct in saying that the term “ethical hacker” does not make any real sense.  Hacking is neither ethical nor unethical, but rather an action similar to running or solving a puzzle.  However, this does not mean that the term should not be used.  In today’s world, where there are so many hackers who mean to do harm, it is helpful to have a term with clarifies that the work a hacker does is not in any way immoral.  Clarity of speech is extremely important, and the term “ethical hacker” helps with that immensely.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Good System Going Bad?

Summary:

I read an article today, which talks about an explanatory document that the National Security Agency (NSA) released in response to the heat they’ve been getting over their data-gathering activities.  The article was mostly informational, simply stating that the document exists, and explaining the gist of what it says.  The document itself is very interesting, detailing as far as is safe for national security the data gathering methods available to and the limitations placed on the NSA.  The end of the article points out that this document come out on the same day as more leaked information from Edward Snowden, information which runs directly contrary to assurances present in the NSA document.  In this blog post I want to talk about this contradiction, and what I think it means for the ethics of the NSA’s activities.

Analysis:

The NSA document was released at President Obama’s behest, with the purpose of explaining concisely what it is that the NSA does, as well as what it does not and cannot do.  In essence what it says is that the NSA’s sole duty is the collection of information, with the intent of passing that intel on to the FBI, so that it can be used to stop terrorist threats.  Their activities are all sanctioned by United States law of long standing.  They have the authorities to track and monitor non-US citizens without much restriction, so long as there is sufficient evidence their targets are involved in questionable activities.  The collection of information outside of the US by necessity of often requires “hacking” (my  word, not theirs), just because terrorists are not going to let just anybody know their plans.  Occasionally their search of information will also require inquiring into the private affairs of American citizens, or delving into American information networks, simply because American citizens are sometimes terrorists as well, and much of the Internet’s traffic goes through America.  When dealing with situations such as this the NSA has clearly defines measures which must be followed to keep the information gathered from being misused.  These measures include the necessity of court orders and levels of cross-examination, with outside individuals making sure everything is above board with the law.  Also all NSA employees are required to report if they see anything being done that should not be done.  The document also detail about the very little amount of information they realistically deal with, and the great good that has come from their efforts.

There is more in the document about safety measures, but I think this should suffice to show that from the NSA’s standpoint what they’re doing is justified.  I was personally convinced from reading the report that what they are doing is good, and should be allowed.  But there is another side to this story, the beginning of which is found in this article.  According to information provided by Edward Snowden, who was an employee of the NSA until moral qualms led him to flee to Russia, the NSA has built “backdoors” into the system which allow them to bypass much of the restrictions on their data gathering, including the need for a warrant. This obviously flies in the face of the NSA’s document, which specifically says that they need a warrant to gather information about US citizens.  According to this article, the NSA can both read American e-mails and listen into American phone-calls whenever it feels like it.  This same point is articulated in this article.

What to do with these two very contrary bit of evidence?  One says that everything is okay, and legal, and ethical, while the other say the exact opposite.  A useful thing to remember is that Proverbs 18:17 says that “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (ESV).  This means that you have to remember that no one has the full story, and you have to accept all information in the light of all other information.  With this in mind I would remember that the NSA document was released with the express and stated purpose of defending the NSA’s actions.  As such, it may not be totally accurate.  Conversely, both articles that point out the NSA’s “nefararious undertakings” are by CNN, which is a news site, and the news generally favors scandal, try as they might to remain unbiased.  As such neither can be trusted completely.  Therefore, I choose to use a slightly different approach.  Rather than using the NSA document and CNN articles to think about what IS, I use them as examples of what COULD be.  The NSA document exemplifies the ideal of a data gathering agency.  It gets only the information it needs, and anything superfluous is discarded.  There are safe guards in place to prevent abuse, and self-reporting keeps things in check.  The CNN articles, on the other hand, present a scenario of what the NSA could be without its safeguards.  It can listen to and look at anything it wants without a second thought, and use that information however it desires.  One scenario is very good, the other very bad, and I daresay the NSA falls somewhere in the middle.

In the end it’s not really about what information the NSA has.  They can gather any information they want, for all I care.  The real question is why they need the information, and what they are using that information for.  I would rather err on the side of caution, and allow the NSA to prevent terrorist attacks, than to limit them and as a result let terrorists fulfill their plots.  But, this only applies if the NSA is really using the information to fight terrorism and domestic threats.  As soon as they start to use it outside of their assigned duties, such as to gather intel on a person that the government doesn’t like, who isn’t doing anything wrong, then they need to be limited, not in data gathering, but in data use.  The NSA document shows that the NSA has high ideals, but the CNN articles show that it might be on the way down the road of corruption, and should be viewed with a measure of caution.

Summary:

There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly the NSA does and does not do to gather information.  It could either be a great organization which uses it’s resources to catch terrorists, or a malevolent entity spying on its country’s own people.  I personally do not care how much data they gather, or how, even if by spying, so long as they as using it to actually fight terrorism, and not misusing the great power that they have been given.  As such I think that there needs to be greater transparency regarding the NSA’s use of their data.  I think the document they released is a good start in that direction, but it should not be the end.  more information should be disclosed, if only to put the mind of the American people at ease.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Rules of the Computing Elite

Summary:

Today’s blog concerns the official ethical “rule book” (or Code of Ethics) of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).  According to Wikipedia, ACM “is a U.S.-based international learned society for computing”, which basically means that it is an organization whose purpose is to promote the field of computing.  You have to pay to be a part of it, as well be pretty good with computers, obviously.  It’s kinda like Mensa, only for computer stuff instead of puzzles.  In 1992 they adopted an official set of principles which all members are expected to comply with.  These principles are applied to computers, but are phrased so as to, in their words, “emphasize that ethical principles which apply to computer ethics are derived from more general ethical principles”.  In other words, their principles apply to everything, not just computers.  I read through the list of rules, and I have to say that it is covers a lot, though it does so very concisely.  In this blog article I want to spend only a brief time on the well-done parts of the Code, and instead focus on the one major flaw that I think really breaks the whole thing down.

Analysis:

The Code is broken up into four different sections.  Section one is aimed towards all people, no matter their position in life.  Section two looks towards bringing about professional excellence.  The third section is concerned with the ethics of being in a leadership position, and the fourth and final section quickly touches on following the Code itself.

The rules of the first section are: Contribute to society, don’t hurt other people, be honest, don’t discriminate, do not pirate, don’t steal ideas, respect people’s privacy, and keep secrets your entrusted with.  These are all good ethical rules, and I cannot find anything to nit-pick with them, aside from the one thing I’ll get to later.  Section two says that we ought to:  Do our best to deliver excellence, strive for self-improvement, Follow the law, get good advice/criticism of our work, look for problems and try to prevent them, keep our word, teach others about how to use computers responsibly, and not hack into computers you’re not allowed on.  Again, all good ideas.  I would say that in my own life I think I should strive to follow each and every one of these rules. The only problem with these rules will be discussed when I get to section four.  Before that, the third section (which is aimed at leaders in companies, and at corporations in general) tell us to: strive to teach others about their social responsibilities, make sure those working under you have a pleasant working environment, make sure your personnel use company resources well, strive to need the client’s needs, make sure your systems don’t somehow hurt anyone’s dignity, and give employees the opportunity to improve themselves.  Okay.  Those are all the major rules in the code.  If you read them you’ll see that they are all really good ideas.  It’s truly a great attempt to make an ethical template for computing professionals to follow, and it turned out well.  The only problem comes when you examine the final section.

Section four is titled: Compliance with the Code, and is by far the shortest section,with only two items.  It says:  One: That everyone who says they will follow this code should follow this code and encourage others to do so, and Two: that following the rules is purely voluntary, and failure to cooperate with result in being ejected from the ACM.  That’s it.  That is all they have to say about following the Code.  Despite their lofty intent and good intentions, in the end it is nothing but a bunch of good ideas, without much weight behind them.  And then you look back on the rest of the rules and you see that over and over again the weight of decision for following the rules is thrown into the reader.  For example, in rule 1.7, it says “User data observed during the normal duties of system operation and maintenance must be treated with strictest confidentiality, except in cases where it is evidence for the violation of law, organizational regulations, or this Code. In these cases, the nature or contents of that information must be disclosed only to proper authorities” (italics mine) meaning that this rule can be transcended by the law.  But rule 2.3, which say to follow the law, also says “Violation of a law or regulation may be ethical when that law or rule has inadequate moral basis or when it conflicts with another law judged to be more important”  which means that you can break the law if you think that you have sufficient moral grounds to do so, meaning that the proviso in rule 1.7 can be ignored if you think it right.

The greatest flaw in this set of rules is that it makes a lot of rules, but then tells people that they have to interpret when the rules are valid.  Why is this a problem?  Well, Proverbs 14:12 says that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death”.  The perception of an imperfect human being is an extremely fragile foundation on which to rest any code of ethics. This article points out that the many problems that have been surfacing as a result of the actions of the NSA are very possibly a result of the ambiguous foundation that the ACM Code of Ethics is based on.  This is a very real flaw in the fabric of the Code.  It has many good ideas, but in the end it lacks the force necessary to bring people to actually act correctly.

Summary:

The ACM worked hard, and made a Code of Ethics to govern the actions of its members.  It is a very good Code, covering many aspects of morality.  However, it leaves the final judgment of morality in the hands of the interpreter, which is a slippery slope at best.  This has very possibly already allowed for the recent NSA scandal.  Thinking on this issue, only the Bible truly has a perfect moral code, based not in fragile human intellect but in the unchanging character of God.  He can tell us what is right and wrong, because his standards never change, and are complete in all their aspects.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized