Jonathan James was convicted of hacking crimes while he was still a minor. According to reports, some of the escapades for which he was known included hacking into the database of NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. This is one of several computer crime cases that have resulted in the conviction of a minor. Also, consider the case of Phillip Alpert. Alpert broadcasted nude pictures of his girlfriend as payback for an argument they had. There is an endless list of such ethical cases where technology has been misappropriated by people who do not qualify to drive.
The arguments of those who sit on the critical side of the globalized fence suggest that technology is shoved down the throats of people before they have the opportunity to develop moral and ethical values. But the conundrum in the use of technology does not end there: The spectrum is wider than the two cases mentioned above. Perhaps, “wider” is an understatement.
Consider the cases of wanted men such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Both leaked confidential information to the general public. This was a breach of law in the countries in which they resided. However, they both managed to escape conviction due to the geographic limitations of policies that exist in their respective country of origin. Governments are unable to agree on issues concerning technology and issues related to its use. One of the reasons for this situation is that while some countries are far advanced in technology (for instance Space Exploration), others are lagging far behind. To wit, technological priorities differ from nation to nation and government to government. For example, why would a country like Ghana be interested in policies concerning Space Exploration technologies?
Another dilemma is the issue of privacy and governments. While citizens demand privacy, governments are concerned with gathering intelligence on citizens as part of security measures. So while technology is gradually becoming embedded in our everyday lives, users of these technologies give away a lot of information (sometimes covertly acquired by the government). The dilemma for governments is where to draw the line between an invasion of privacy and collecting data to strengthen security. Unfortunately, it is not only authorized institutions that have access to private or sensitive data. Due to some degree of security flaws, technologies are accessible by unauthorized individuals or groups, sometimes referred to as hackers, but generally considered criminals. Hence, the more technology, the higher the probability of technology-related crime.
Conceivably, one of the critical issues that still beats the mind of ethical computing researchers is the rate at which users subscribe to technological scams. For instance, you receive an email purporting that your account has been compromised or hacked into. You are provided a link to re-enter your old password and sometimes to enter a new password. You quickly provide the recommended details to secure your account. You click the submit button thinking you have outwitted a group of fraudsters. Unfortunately, that is as far from the truth as day from night; you have rather submitted confidential information to predators ready to pounce on your identity. Another way for people to access your personal data is the use and distribution of pirated software and content such as movies. First of all, patronizing pirated software is equivalent to purchasing stolen goods. But that is a discussion for another day. The source of concern here, is how we are quick to accept terms and policies from these software providers without assessing the content. We are as quick to tick the “accept terms” box as we are to say a blessing over our lunch. Probably, we have gone too far by talking about pirated software. The situation is the same even for genuine software and content.
The cases presented above are meant to draw our attention to some ethical considerations in the development and use of technology. It seems that somewhere along the line, we allowed the development and use of these technologies to speed pass the development of our norms and values. Perhaps, it is time to take our feet off the pedal and ponder over some of these concerns.
By Kofi Arhin
Information Systems Profession