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Ethics in IT: Dark secrets, ugly truths -- and little guidance

With access to digital information comes great power

By Tam Harbert
October 29, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - What Bryan found on an executives computer six years ago still weighs heavily on his mind. Hes particularly troubled that the man he discovered using a company PC to view pornography of Asian women and of children was subsequently promoted and moved to China to run a manufacturing plant.

To this day, I regret not taking that stuff to the FBI, says Bryan.

It happened when Bryan, who asked that his last name not be published, was IT director at the U.S. division of a $500 million multinational corporation based in Germany.

The companys Internet usage policy, which Bryan helped develop with input from senior management, prohibited the use of company computers to access pornographic or adult-content Web sites. One of Bryans duties was to monitor employee Web surfing using products from SurfControl PLC and report any violations to management.

Bryan knew that the executive, who was a level above him in another department, was popular within both the U.S. division and the German parent. But when the tools turned up dozens of pornographic Web sites visited by the execs computer, Bryan followed the policy. Thats what its there for. I wasnt going to get into trouble for following the policy, he reasoned.

So he went to his manager with copies of the Web logs (which he still has in his possession and made available to Computerworld for verification).

Power and Responsibility

Bryans case is a good example of the ethical dilemmas that IT workers may encounter on the job. IT employees have privileged access to digital information, both personal and professional, throughout the company, and they have the technical prowess to manipulate that information.

That gives them both the power and responsibility to monitor and report employees who break company rules. IT professionals may also uncover evidence that a co-worker is, say, embezzling funds, or they could be tempted to peek at private salary information or personal e-mails. But theres little guidance on what to do in these uncomfortable situations.

In the case of the porn-viewing executive, Bryan didnt get into trouble, but neither did the executive, who came up with a pretty outlandish explanation that the company accepted, Bryan says. He considered going to the FBI, but the Internet bubble had just burst, and jobs were hard to come by. It was a tough choice, Bryan says. [But] I had a family to feed.

In theory, ethical behavior is governed by laws, corporate policy, professional ethics and personal judgment. But as IT pros discover all the time, finding a way through that thorny thicket can be one of the most daunting challenges in their careers.

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