Telling right from wrong

by brian d foy

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Have you ever wondered if you are doing the right thing? Is is okay to steal from work? How about downloading pirated music using the company network? Do the rules apply to everyone? Can I do whatever I want if I'm a system administrator?

These are real topics covered in "IT Ethics Handbook". Sadly, each answer comes in two varieties: Conservative and liberal (each of which get their own font!). If you don't like one answer, you can just choose the other. The (long) list of contributors put their heads together to come up with rationalizations for both sides.

I tend to think that if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer, and if you truly don't, asking your friends, boss, or co-workers will clear it right up. Heck, the employee handbook might even answer them. The book doesn't really lay a foundation for ethics, but sticks to specifics questions. Indeed, it seems to ignore the idea that ethics isn't an absolute, and may vary between different groups and cultures. They merely mention all that stuff in the introduction, but then quickly discard it.

Some other paraphrased questions, in case you still think you need this book. You can quickly find a rationalization for the right and wrong of each and apply the answer that you like best.

  • Can I write malicious virus code for profit?
  • Should I use somebody else's login and password?
  • Can I use company resources for personal gain?
  • Can I videotape my co-workers having sex in the hallways? (real question)
  • Do I have to obey the law?
  • Can I be lazy?
  • Can I spy on employees?
  • Can I take revenge on a co-worker?

Perhaps this book is for the guy who wears the expensive suit and takes off fridays to play golf.


2004-12-10 17:31:50
sounds more like Jerry Springer
than a serious discussion of ethics. Sysadmins often face serious ethical questions: when is it defensible to log an employee's keystrokes or monitor their email? What do you do when your boss asks you to do something illegal, like pirate software? What do you do about the boss's pr0n surfing habit?

It's easy to tell someone "get another job" when you're secure in your own circumstances. But a person with a family to feed, in a crappy job market, is in a difficult position. That's a real-world ethical dilemma.

2004-12-10 17:44:43
sounds more like Jerry Springer
I'm no where near secure in my circumstances. I haven't had a full time job since 2001, am starting a new business, and pretty much live from month to month. It's still pretty easy for me to know what's not right. I left one company I owned because of the shady dealings of one of the partners.

When is it defensible to monitor an employee's keystrokes? Check the employee handbook, and tell everyone there is no expectation of privacy and that they may be monitored. Solved.

What do you do when someone asks you to do something illegal? Don't do it. Boss still want you to do it? Ask for it on paper. Duh.

Boss has a porn habit? Who cares? Why do you have to do anything?

None of these strike me as telling the difference between right and wrong: just the willingness to be on the right side. That's a problem of backbone. A handbook doesn't solve that.