Privacy Issues in Computer Ethics

by John Dolan

I teach a course in Computer Ethics, CS265. In the past I have always become this course with focus on two areas, the theories of normative ethics and the relationship between people and technology. After attending the Ethics Workshop I have decided that it would be better to begin the class with something more concrete, and the area in which I would like to start the initial focus of the course is privacy.

I believe that privacy is of special interest to the students in this course since many will be soon working in positions where they will have extensive access to personal information in many forms and at many levels. I also think that there are serious questions available such as: What is privacy? Is privacy a right? Does the sense of privacy vary from culture to culture?, etc.

Our class meets for two hours at a time, once a week, and since it is only a single credit hour we have a lot of flexibility to allow time for discussion. On the first day of class I will only be handing out basic materials and describing the course. I have found that my enrollment changes during the first week and I would like all the students to be able to participate in this module, so I am scheduling it for the second class meeting.

The students will be divided into groups and given a series of problems to work on.

I. In the first problem I propose that there has been trouble in offices of a small company with petty theft and also with racial slurs appearing as graffiti. The students are to imagine themselves as head of this company and have to decide about the placing of video cameras that will be used to monitor the employees. They will be asked to answer a series of questions.

  • Is this ethically acceptable?
  • Does it matter where the cameras are placed?
  • For example should the camera be located in such a way as to only watch the employee is working at his desk, or should it be set so that you can also record information about items on his desk?
  • How about items on his computer screen?
  • Does it matter if the employees are aware of the cameras or not, since you think that you might get more valuable information by doing this covertly?
  • Since some of the problems with graffiti are happening in the restroom will it be acceptable to place a cameras in the restrooms?
  • Since you are male would it be okay to place a camera in the men’s room but not the ladies?
  • Is it different if you were to add or substitute audio recordings so that you can hear what your employees are saying to each other as well as their phone conversations?

Now, as an employee:

  • What makes you uncomfortable about all this?
  • Is something being taken from you?
  • Even though your body is not being touched are you being in some sense violated?
  • Does correction of the problems of petty larceny and racism justify this violation?
  • And ultimately, what is privacy?

At the end of group work the various groups will present their “findings”.

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