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

With access to digital information comes great power

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It happened when Bryan, who asked that his last name not be published, was IT director at the U.S. division of a $500 million multinational corporation based in Germany.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

Perhaps it would ease Bryans conscience to know that he did just what labor attorney Linn Hynds, a senior partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, would have advised in his case. Let the company handle it, she says. Make sure you report violations to the right person in your company, and show them the evidence. After that, leave it to the people who are supposed to be making that decision.

Picking Up the Slack

Ideally, corporate policy takes over where the law stops, governing workplace ethics to clear up gray areas and remove personal judgment from the equation as much as possible.

If you dont set out your policy and your guidelines, if you dont make sure that people know what they are and understand them, youre in no position to hold [workers] accountable, says John Reece, a former CIO at the Internal Revenue Service and Time Warner Inc. Having clear ethical guidelines also lets employees off the hook emotionally if the person they discover breaking the policy is a friend, a direct report or a supervisor, says Reece, who is now head of consultancy John C. Reece and Associates LLC.

That policy should warn all employees that their PCs are company property, and therefore any information on them is fair game for investigation, says Art Crane, principal of Capstone Services, a human resources consultancy. It should provide clear instructions on what to do when employees encounter a violation of the policy, including guidance on how to bring it up the chain of command. It should also have whistle-blower provisions that protect employees from retaliation.

But many corporate policies are ill defined, fail to keep up with new technologies and are poorly communicated to the IT department.

Thats partly because ethics policies are typically defined by an organizations lawyers or regulatory compliance staff, says Larry Ponemon, chairman of Ponemon Institute LLC, a research company that specializes in privacy and data protection. These folks may not fully understand or respect the complexities that IT-related ethical issues create, he notes.

Troubles, Past and Future

Organizations that have policies in place often focus on areas where they had trouble in the past or emphasize whatever they are most worried about. When Reece was at the IRS, for example, the biggest emphasis was on protecting the confidentiality of taxpayer information, he says.

At the U.S. Department of Defense, policies usually emphasize procurement rules, notes Stephen Northcutt, president of the SANS Technology Institute and author of IT Ethics Handbook: Right and Wrong for IT Professionals (Syngress, 2004).

Adding to the complexity, an organization that depends on highly skilled workers might be more lenient. When Northcutt worked in IT security at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia, it was a rarefied atmosphere of highly sought-after Ph.D.s. I was told pretty clearly that if I made a whole lot of Ph.D.s very unhappy so that they left, the organization wouldnt need me anymore, says Northcutt.

Of course, that wasnt written in any policy manual, so Northcutt had to read between the lines. The way I interpreted it was: Child pornography, turn that in, he says. But if the leading mathematician wants to download some pictures of naked girls, they didnt want to hear from me.

Northcutt says that he did find child porn on two occasions and that both events led to prosecution. As for other offensive photos that he encountered, Northcutt pointed out to his superiors that there might be a legal liability, citing a Supreme Court decision that found that similar pictures at a military installation indicated a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment. That did the trick. Once they saw that law was involved, they were more willing to change culture and policy, Northcutt says.

When policies arent clear, ethical decisions are left to the judgment of IT employees, which varies by person and the particular circumstances.

For example, Gary, a director of technology at a nonprofit organization in the Midwest, flat-out refused when the assistant CEO wanted to use a mailing list that a new employee had stolen from her former employer. But Gary, who asked that his last name not be used, didnt stop his boss from installing unlicensed software on PCs for a short time, though he refused to do it himself. The question is, how much was it really going to hurt anybody? We were still going to have 99.5% compliant software. I was OK with that. He says he uninstalled it, with his bosss approval, as soon as he could about a week later.

Northcutt argues that the IT profession should have two things that professions such as law or accounting have had for years: a code of ethics and standards of practice. That way, when company policy is nonexistent or unclear, IT professionals still have standards to fall back on.

That might be useful for Tim, a systems administrator who works at a Fortune 500 agricultural business. When Tim, who asked that his last name not be published, happened across an unencrypted spreadsheet of salary information on a managers PC, he copied it. He didnt share the information with anyone or use it to his advantage. It was an impulsive act, he admits, that stemmed from frustration with his employer. I didnt take it for nefarious reasons; I just took it to prove that I could, he says.

Tims actions point to a disturbing trend: IT workers justifying their ethically questionable behavior. That path can end in criminal activity, says fraud investigator Chuck Martell. We started seeing a few cases about seven or eight years ago, says Martell, managing director of investigative services at Veritas Global LLC, a security firm in Southfield, Mich. Now were [investigating] a tremendous amount of them.

Whichever side of the line theyre on, IT workers will for now at least continue to muddle through ethical dilemmas on their own and wrestle with their consciences afterward.

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Harbert is a Washington-based freelance journalist specializing in technology, business and public policy.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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