Wiretapping, whistleblowing and IT ethics

Recently a retired AT&T employee named Mark Klein announced at a Capitol Hill press conference that he had evidence that “An exact copy of all Internet traffic that flowed through critical AT&T cables … was being diverted to equipment inside the secret room.”

This secret room, apparently managed by the National Security Agency, was on the sixth floor of AT&T’s San Francisco offices. Moreover, this room isn’t, so the story goes, unique. There are similar rooms in many other AT&T offices around the country.

Klein had the luxury of becoming a whistleblower after any risk to his job had passed, but he kept copies of documentation to prove his case. I suspect had he blown the whistle while he was at AT&T (and assuming there was an effective opportunity for whistle-blowing at the time) he would have been out on his ear.

This story got me thinking about a couple of things. First, this confirms what we had a lot of evidence to support already: that the administration’s illegal wire tapping activities cover more than the telephone system and is anything but selective. And it is pretty safe to say that, just as with the telephone surveillance, the key issue with the monitoring of Internet traffic is analyzing connections rather than content: That is, figuring out who is talking to whom.

Why does this matter? Most of us can say, “I have nothing to hide so why should I care?” and we’d be, in principle, correct. But the problem is the government easily could get it wrong. What’s more, they are collecting data on everyone and, once they have the data, whose to say what future purposes might crop up to justify putting it to use? That is one slippery slope my friend.

The second thing I started thinking about was ethics. When it comes down to your behaviour in the IT world, can you say you behave ethically? Do you have a well-developed sense of what is right and wrong?

Even more importantly, are you willing to act when you know of misbehaviour or do you just ignore it, hoping it will go away and leave you alone? These were things you didn’t do anything about even though your conscience was bothering you … so, why didn’t you blow the whistle?

I’m guessing many of you have witnessed or even been involved in things that you knew were wrong and sometimes this might have been in the category we could call “minor” stuff. Minor stuff are all those small issues but where it is arguable that reasonable self-interest gives you a justifiable “out.”

For example, say you caught your boss liberating a toner cartridge for home use. Is it your responsibility to take action when it could result in you having to look for a new job?

On the other hand I’ll bet some of you have been party to bigger issues, things that were wrong or decisions that you knew would lead directly to things that would be wrong in a major way. For example, if you found out that the same devious boss who acquired the toner cartridge was getting thousands of dollars in kickbacks by steering server purchases to a particular vendor, would you feel compelled to do something?

So my question is, what are you willing to do when push comes to shove, when it is something so big and so wrong you can’t sleep at night knowing you didn’t do the right thing?

If you were in Klein’s shoes and you weren’t retired and speaking up could cost you your job, would you have kept quiet? We now know there must have been a number of AT&T executives who were completely comfortable with the ethics of allowing the NSA to perform covert wire taps. If you were one of those people, how do you justify your silence? If you weren’t, are all of your ethical judgments above board?

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