Personal integrity and morality in IT

Who do you work for? What does your employer ask of you? Are you comfortable with the social consequences of what you do? Most of us deal with ethical challenges when working in IT. The question is how well we do so. We are not just guardians of information: we are also at the centre of the operation of most organisations. A lot more than data flows past us and we enable a lot more than just transactions. In what we do and what we see, we are answerable to our own personal morality as we shape the new society.

Long ago I wrote about Big Uncle, as compared to Big Brother. Big Uncle is the positive consequences of information being gathered about us; the reasons we surrender privacy in order to be part of a supportive community, for our protection and to optimise our community experience (Targeted ads? Yes please.) The difference between Big Uncle and Big Brother is all in the actions of those who work in the corridors of power. Big Brother is only possible when IT people make it possible. We get the surveillance we deserve.

"In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Martin Luthur King

Somewhere within Microsoft and other companies, there are programmers who wrote the code to give the NSA their back doors. I guess they rationalised it as sacrificing honesty in the name of national security. They may even have felt good about what they did. Or maybe it keeps them awake at nights. Perhaps they did it out of fear, pressured to do it and ashamed of having capitulated.

Even more unsavoury is when games manufacturuers change their code to suck up to totalitarian regimes. It is so much easier when it is an unseen foreigner whose freedoms you sell out cheaply.

For the record, I'm not a privacy advocate. This isn't about privacy. And I'm not anti-NSA. We need surveillance, for our protection, to defend our liberty. But we need surveillance with honour, with honesty and transparency, with decency. Clearly that is not what we have been getting, and many IT people made that possible.

Nor is this just about surveillance. More generally we get the society we deserve. We are all faced with ethical challenges. Sometimes we are asked to do something unethical, and more commonly we see it being done by others. How do you respond to that? How will you respond in future?

Somewhere there are accountants and managers and lawyers who set up Apple's tax rorts, and similar rorts in a thousand other companies. People go to work every day at tobacco companies, betting shops, casinos (this press release came out the very day I posted this), payday loans and boiler rooms; and millions work inside the military-industrial complex. There wasn't an exodus of staff from Union Carbide after the Indian tragedy. IT is pivotal to the functioning of almost all organisations, and we may well play a part in activities that go against our personal values, and/or against the interests of our fellow members of society.

The moral position of people working in certain industries is interesting. If they will lie on their deathbed content with what they have done then at least they act with personal integrity within their own moral framework. I don't think that is always the case: I think some people compromise their own personal values to make a living. That's a shame, as it slowly rots you from within.

Even when people are comfortable with what they do, I think others also have a right to call them to account for that decision because of the negative impacts on our shared society. If you work somewhere that I find personally distasteful, I am not going to politely pretend not to notice because you think you have some god-given right to work where you choose.

I hope each one of us has the courage when faced with moral challenge to make the decision we will be proud of. I won't say what I thought of Snowden's actions - I don't think I'm even sure - but I bloody well honour his fortitude to have done it. And I honour the courage of the IT director of the Florida State Attorney's Office. I doubt he feels bad about losing his job.

We discussed some of these issues recently on the Antipodean ITSM podcast (from 11:40 to 42:00 for the impatient amongst you)

Much that is unethical is conceived and led by sociopaths. They don't care and never will. But many of the people in these organisations are ordinary people, good people. We get captured by the cultural frame of reference within an organisation - sucked in. Over time it slowly adjusts our moral compass; undermines and shifts our values. We believe in what we are doing, or at least we are less uncomfortable with it. I worked with a corporation whose chief executive is still in jail, and quite rightly so. The culture challenged me a number of times and I had to examine my values. There were things I refused to do, and eventually I decided it wasn't somewhere I wanted to be. But I stayed there a very long time. I'm not here to say I'm any better; only to ask you to defend (or restore) your own integrity.

I like the term "cognitive capture". Your regular environment becomes your understanding of all reality: you think everybody lives as you do, thinks like the people you mix with, experiences your environment. At some superficial level your rational mind knows differently, knows about the world out there, but your subconscious is fooled, your worldview distorted.

  • It's OK to sell hard.
  • This is a competitive environment. We do what we do to win.
  • Security is a dirty business.
  • People are stupid. They need to be steered for their own good.
  • If the authorities are interested in someone there must be a reason.
  • It may not be perfect but we work with what we have.
  • They would have lost out anyway.
  • It's not perfectly legal but everybody is doing it.
  • It's none of your business what they do with the report - it is not your job to ask.
  • We do what we have to do.
  • That's how it is done here.
  • Get on the bus. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.
  • it is not dishonest, it is just marketing hyperbole.
  • Don't get squeamish now: this is about survival.
  • The regulations have not kept up with reality.
  • Just following orders.


If you work in or with IT in any organisation, you are building the code and manipulating the data and operating the systems and pulling the reports that makes possible the things that the organisation does. Ask yourself how you really feel about that. Ask yourself if you want to be a part of that, if you respect what the organisation does. I'm proud to do work for police, hospitals, government services, and even the tax-man (NZ has a helpful honourable tax service, unlike some). I haven't worked for anyone I'd consider "dodgy" in all my seven years of consulting. Nor would I... I hope.

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing."
John Stuart Mill

Speak up for the small issues. Make your morality known. Ask others to justify theirs. Be a decent organisation. By growing strong on the small issues, you may be ready if and when you meet a big one.

To be confronted with a serious challenge is unfortunate - bad luck you. To have to consider whether you will whistleblow and lose your job is not something I would wish on anyone. But it happens. And when it does the needs of the group may outweigh the needs of the individual. It is like a war situation: you may need to sacrifice yourself for the sake of your moral beliefs. Manning and Snowden certainly did. Looking at those two, one might conclude you need to already be self-destructive in order to step up to being a whistleblower. I hope not. I hope we all can.

Whistleblowers do make a sacrifice: we don't have good protection for them in most countries. If put in that situation I like to think I would do the right thing - to be able to look my son in the eye - but I will never know for sure until it happens. I try not to judge others who had to make the choice between social good and their family's security. I understand how someone raised in hardship or insecurity might choose to put their family first.

But we in IT, as much as anyone in society, are the defenders of the social good when it comes to surveillance and other aspects of morality in the use of information. I hope we all rise to our best when it matters, and do what is right.

To what extent has the culture of your organisation influenced your personal ethics? What would the 21-year-old-you say of you now?

What moral code do you operate by? is it the one your parents lived by? Is it the same one you wish for your children?

What are you not prepared to do for the shilling of your employer? And what are you not prepared to stand by and watch happen?

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