IS350 Assignment 1: Ethical Analysis
Back Doors on Network Hardware to Prevent Terrorism
Identify the moral agents (agency)
The moral agent is defined as the person/party that is responsible for making the final action, and who will take responsibility for any repercussions that this action will take. In this case study, the moral agent would be the NSA, as they are the ones that have to make the decision whether to intercept network gear for surveillance in order to detect potential terrorist activities without informing the manufacturer or the client.
What of value is at stake?
If the NSA chooses to tap into routers without the knowledge of anyone else, privacy and security are at risk the most, as clients are now under supervision without their knowledge. Other than that, many tangible items are at stake, such as company resources and money, which are used to monitor all activities, as well as intangible items such as credibility, integrity, and reputation of the NSA.
Who/what are the stakeholders?
Stakeholders are the people who stand to lose something of value within this situation. In this scenario, the major stakeholders are the NSA, because they stand to lose their reputation and credibility by monitoring others, as well as the clients, because they stand to lose their privacy and security by being monitored.
Possible courses of action
One possible course of action for the NSA to take is to install the “back door” and monitor clients without their knowledge. The other possible course of action that they could take is to not monitor clients at all.
Consequences associated with each course of action
A positive consequence for the NSA if they chose to monitor clients without their knowledge would be the potential to find and eliminate any terrorist activities. A negative consequence for the same action would be that if the NSA was caught installing this program, they would have to handle the repercussions of their actions, such as losing credibility, which can result in losing business and money for the company. If the NSA chose to monitor clients without their knowledge, a negative consequence for the clients would be less privacy as well as a higher chance of getting caught doing something they should not be doing.
If the NSA chose not to monitor clients and to leave the networking hardware as is, a negative consequence for the NSA would be that they would not be able to identify any terrorist activity, which creates an unsafe environment as well as a bad reputation for the NSA. A positive consequence for the clients would be that they have more privacy and free will to do what they want.
Analysis using all objective ethical theories (Act Utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Social Contract Theory, Virtue Theory)
The first formulation of the Kantian theory states that actions are moral if they can be applied universally. In this situation, the universal rule would be that everybody would be monitored by the NSA equally in order to detect any potential terrorist activities. If this was applied, the NSA would find the potential terrorist threats without causing harm to anyone else, unless they used the information for more than just terrorist threats. The second formulation states that you must not use others as a means to an end. In this case, the NSA is using the clients as a means to an end, because they are not informing them that they are monitoring their networking hardware. However, if the clients knew that they were being monitored, it would not be an accurate gauge of suspected terrorist activity, as terrorists would cease to use public networking hardware in fear of getting caught. This action is seen as ethical through Kantianism.
Rule Utilitarianism states that if the universal rule is applied and happiness increases, the action is viewed as moral. In this situation, we apply the universal rule that the NSA is monitoring everyone once again. While applying this rule, the happiness factor would increase, as it would not be just specific clients being targeted, and they would feel safer with the NSA finding terrorist activity and eliminating possible threats in this way. This action is seen as ethical through Rule Utilitarianism.
Act Utilitarianism states that an action is good if it’s net effect produces more happiness than unhappiness. We apply the universal rule once more, stating that the NSA is allowed to monitor any client. Through this, we see that the clients will at first be upset, which will decrease happiness, because they are being monitored and their privacy is at risk. After that, however, happiness will increase a greater amount, as the NSA will detect terrorist activity, making it a safer place for everyone. This action is seen as ethical through Act Utilitarianism.
Social Contract Theory states that people must treat each other fairly, and that as long as everyone follows the same rule, it is seen as just. When applying this theory to the situation, we see that morality is more important than security, and that because the people and the manufacturers don’t know that they are adding this back door method, this action is seen as unethical through Social Contract Theory.
Virtue Ethics states that any action taken that a virtuous person would make is seen as ethical. Applying this, we see that the NSA is only using this method in order to keep the world safer and eliminate any risks of potential terrorist threats that they would not have identified without monitoring their clients. This action is seen as ethical through Virtue Ethics.
Identify clauses in the ACM Code of Ethics and the Software Engineering Code of Ethics
1.06 (Software Engineering Code of Ethics): “Be fair and avoid deception in all statements”
The NSA is keeping information and not informing the clients and the manufacturers that they are installing these methods to monitor clients, so they are being deceptive towards clients.
3.13 (Software Engineering Code of Ethics): Use only accurate data appropriately acquired
The NSA, although they are using the information to keep the people safe, have not acquired their clients’ information legally.
1.1 (ACM Code of Ethics): Contribute to society and to human well-being, acknowledging that all people are stakeholders in computing.
This clause also promotes minimizing negative consequences, “including threats to health, safety, personal security, and privacy”. This shows that the NSA, although breaching privacy, is still protecting their clients’ safety and personal security.
1.2 (ACM Code of Ethics): Avoid harm.
The NSA is avoiding harm in the best way they can, although it involves not informing clients, they are protecting them for their own safety.
1.6 (ACM Code of Ethics): Respect privacy.
The NSA is breaching their clients’ privacy without their knowledge, which breaks the ACM code of ethics.
Concrete action based on recommendation
Based on recommendation, the NSA should go ahead and implement their system, only if it is truly used to find security threats and no other reason. The only reason the NSA should be able to breach security without their clients and manufacturers knowing is if it protects their clients and keeps them safer overall.
“The Code Affirms an Obligation of Computing Professionals to Use Their Skills for the Benefit of Society.” Code of Ethics, www.acm.org/code-of-ethics.
Ethics for the Information Age. Pearson Education, 2013.
Gallagher, Sean. “Photos of an NSA ‘Upgrade’ Factory Show Cisco Router Getting Implant.” Ars Technica, 14 May 2014, arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/05/photos-of-an-nsa-upgrade-factory-show-cisco-router-getting-implant/.
“Software Engineering Code.” ACM Ethics, 19 Dec. 2018, ethics.acm.org/code-of-ethics/software-engineering-code/.
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