Essay: Issues in a Project Computing Ethics

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It Ethics

Legal, Ethical, and Social Issues Facing Data Storage and Information Systems: A Hypothetical Case Study

Information technology often seems, especially in some of its more mundane business applications, to be about as far removed from areas of legal, ethical, and social concern as is possible. Communication and information, however, are the primary seat of power and decision-making within an organization and in relation to society as a whole; with this in mind, it becomes obvious that information systems and Information technology professionals are in many ways the vanguard of ensuring that an organization's actions are legal, ethical, and socially responsible. It professionals do not have paramount control over most organizations' actions, of course, but there are definitely situations in which these concerns must be taken into consideration.

In the hypothetical case at hand, a start-up system design company landed a contract with a government-linked company to design and implement a new information system. The team did their job too well, in the eyes of the client company's management, who fear that their necessary compliance with the Freedom of Information Act coupled with the easy access to all company information would not be advantageous. The chief development officer of the design firm has been asked to correct the "problems" with the system by limiting the amount of information the system could reliably handle, or by making access to the information more time consuming and difficult -- and therefore more costly.

Legal Facts

The first concerns that need to be dealt with before more abstract and less certain areas can be examined is the legality of the request made. The Freedom of Information Act is not a non-enforceable guideline but rather a federally mandated order to all federal agencies and their agents (such as the private yet government-linked company in this case) (FOIA Update 1996). Though remedies for perceived and known violations of the Freedom of Information Act might not be especially effective in inspiring adherence to the provisions of the law, it is nonetheless required of the client company to maintain full and accurate records pertaining to certain aspects of their business with the government, including decisions made and communications -- made electronically or otherwise -- relevant to the decision-making process (FOIA Update 1996). Many other internal communications that took place within this private company would not have to be stored or delivered upon demand, as the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to non-federal organizations, but the company cannot legally avoid making the necessary information public upon request.

Not only is the company required to deliver this information upon request, but it is also required to make "reasonable" efforts to maintain an index of electronic communications and to make such recommendations available to the public (FOIA Update 1996). The company is more than expected to behave in good faith in the maintenance and accessibility of its documents, it is legally required to behave in this manner.

In addition to being outright illegal, the company's desire to expend extra effort in making the storage and retrieval of the necessary documents and information more difficult is also ultimately more of a burden on the company than simple compliance would be. The Freedom of Information Act requires each government agency to publish a schedule of appropriate fees to be collected for the access, creation, and delivery of various documents; in addition to mandating that all agencies (and their agents) deliver the information in any reasonable manner specified by the party requesting the information, the law also allows for the setting of costs that can be recovered for compliance (FOIA Update 1996). Making access and retrieval more difficult will only make things more difficult for the company itself, without leading to the prohibitive mounting costs to the requestor that such a deliberate action is certainly -- and illegally -- intended to instigate.

Legally, the chief development officer of the information system design firm would not be held legally responsible for the compliance -- or lack thereof -- of the client company to the Freedom of Information Act, and indeed no person can be held individually responsible for the failure to produce requested information (FOIA 1996). Though the company has already suggested intentions that are outright illegal according to the law itself, it is not immediately clear that the chief development officer or the design company would be breaking the law by complying with the client's request. Foreknowledge of a crime to be committed, however, should be ample dissuasion from such action.

Ethical Concerns

Decisions regarding how to store data, how much information to store, and when it is permissible to delete or alter existing data -- with or without a notation commenting on such deletion or notation -- represent some of the most common and at times most extreme ethical dilemmas faced by information technology professionals (Worthington 2005). The ability to control and manipulate information is, as noted above, intimately related to decision making power and power in general, and thus it can be a highly sensitive and highly controversial issue. Certain ethical guidelines and principles have been established that can be directly brought to bear on this issue, illuminating the far more egregious ethical issues of the client company's request and the potential compliance of the chief development officer and the information system design firm identified in the scenario.

It is through the availability of information that effective decisions can be made, and though a full immersion in "oceans of data" is generally not the best way to analyze patterns or pick out key features of any data set, the existence of reliable and efficient ways for storing and accessing large amounts of information necessitates that such technologies be used in the prevention of harm and the furtherance of public good as much as possible (Arquilla 2006). This is the very point of the Freedom of Information Act, and the company's deliberate attempt to avoid transparency and public knowledge is highly unethical. Access to information that depicts the company's use of and effect on the public is the basic motive for the Freedom of Information Act, and an avoidance of this is not simply in violation of the legality of the law but also of the ethical spirit that inspired it.

The demand for greater privacy for individuals and reduced transparency for private organizations has weakened in the face of growing security concerns and, more recently, a series of fraud and questionable accounting practices at well-respected and ostensibly upstanding organizations (Kvamme 2001). Though the company in this scenario would not likely be involved in major threats to national security, its desire for privacy must also be seen as diminished in comparison to the need for public protection, specially given the organization's links to the federal government -- which is supposed to be responsive to the people. Avoiding the public disclosure of documents and information that affect the public, and that were created with public funding, is ethically repugnant on several levels, and it would be equally repugnant for the design company or any of its officers to assists in the request for "improvements" to the well-functioning system.

Social Issues

The open sharing of information that the Freedom of Information Act and simple ethical responsiveness demand all work to establish a broader social trust, and the development of this trust is also a mandate for information technology professionals (Amoroso 2003). Especially when there is a real and/or perceived power imbalance, as between an individual and the federal government or a large semi-private organization, the maintenance of this trust through continuing communication and information sharing is essential to maintaining trust (Amoroso 2003).

The company's request in this case, in deliberately attempting to limit the flow of and access to information, is inherently and directly causing mistrust, and with good reason -- why… [END OF PREVIEW]

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