Can you afford a conscience?

Can you afford a conscience?

I wonder how often you face ethical questions in your professional life? I'm not talking about accidentally leaving a couple of extra applications on the PCs you sell, or rounding-up your billable hours. I'm talking about being asked to do something questionable by a client.

I recently spoke to a reseller who was asked to build an e-mail monitoring system. He was to make it undetectable, as even the network administrator wasn't going to be told it existed. He didn't agonise over the decision long, as he concluded that business is business, and if he didn't do it, someone else would, and they'd probably get the firm's business from then on.

Eye spy

This reseller also installs security systems, so I asked him what he would do if he was asked to install hidden video cameras in the workplace, or even in supposedly private areas like canteens. "What do you mean if?" he replied. It turns out this, too is becoming more common.

He reminded me of a system that was developed a few years ago. It consists of a hard plastic tube that snakes throughout a building, on the wall, just below the ceiling. There's a camera inside the tube, that runs around on a track like a monorail train. The tube is mirrored so you can't see in, but the camera can see out. And you can't hear it moving either, so you never know if the camera is watching you or not.

Think about the sort of things you could be asked to do to enable management to monitor a workplace. E-mail; the text content of anything that is printed; web sites visited; newsgroups joined; attempts to log on to the network as different people; attempts to read files in other people's areas; and so on.

The trouble with this sort of thing is, you can be asked to do something innocuous, not knowing how it's going to be used. And even having the ability to do something doesn't necessarily mean it will be misused. But what would you do if you installed a new digital phone system that was integrated with the company LAN, only to be shown the "listening room" where a couple of security people spent their day randomly listening to employee phone calls, recording some for further action?

Even something as straightforward as a program to monitor the keyboard activity on each workstation on a network might be used to decide which employee gets the sack when times are tough.

I'd be interested to hear of your experiences, and any decisions you've had to make when there is an ethical question about the work you're being asked to do.

E-mail me at

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