Ethics and Professional Practice Essay Example

Ethics and Professional Practice

Ethics and Professional Practice

Ethics and Professional Practice

In any reasonable society, practical expectations are placed on each individual to refrain from acting in a manner that does not conform to the societal norms. In most societies therefore, individuals are expected to recognise and respect the rights such as the right to life, freedom, choice, privacy, and the freedom or expression among others. In the same light, there are standards which enjoin people in virtues of loyalty, compassion and honesty. Such are supported by well-founded reasons, which are consistent with societal norms that form the basis of ethical behaviour. Specifically, Fule and Roddick (2004) define ethics as “a set of moral principles or a system of values which guide the behaviour of individuals and organisations. It is the correct way of doing things which as judged by the society and often enforced through law…” (p. 1). When used in relation to ICT, ethics assumes a multi-faceted concept that is relatively difficult to analyse and even evaluate. This is especially true since ICT ethics not only covers technological aspects, but also the knowledge, information and data involved. Since there are multiple ICT-related ethical issues raised in literature, this paper will limit itself to a debate that has received much attention the world over: security threats and the emerging surveillance by governments in an attempt to ensure the safety of innocent civilian populations.

The House of Lords in Britain define surveillance as watching over or monitoring people, systems or objects. It further lists the instruments used in surveillance as closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, wiretaps, covert activities, heat seeking, body scans, and other technology devices used in sensing and tracking human movement (House of Lords, 2009).

The paper argues that although the greater societal welfare warrants governments to put surveillance measures especially in the view of terrorism threats, ethics demand that data, information or knowledge obtained from such surveillance should not be used for anything else other than security reasons. Hence, governments should act ethically by engaging in surveillance that is only beneficial to the larger community, and should also set up the legal framework that will regulate the surveillance, as well as the use of data, information or knowledge obtained from such practices.

Security threats and heightened government surveillance

The concept of security has undergone some major changes since the cold war era when threats mainly occurred between states and regions. With information communication technologies gaining currency with each passing day, there are concerns that security threats in the future will take a more technological approach. According to Krahmann (2010), a security threat is any event or occurrence that has potential negative consequences on individuals, societies or states. Hence the proliferation of arms, infectious diseases, terrorism or civil wars can all be categorized as security threats. Governments the world over have a moral, ethical and social responsibility of protecting the citizenry from security threats. Consequently, such governments take up surveillance as a means of ‘watching over the masses’ in order to provide preventative solutions to avert any security threats. In the United States of America, the ICT use in surveillance has increased law enforcers’ capacities to prevent detection as they observe suspected people in normal and unrestrained states. By eavesdropping using electronic gadgets, the security personnel are able to gather evidence which is otherwise unobtainable through regular means. Such position not withstanding, Bajc (2007) notes that surveillance threatens relationships that most governments have with their respective publics. The situation is even more complex with ICT use since technology development has made it easier for governments to observe the citizenry without their outright approval, and often times without them noticing it. This then raises the question, is it ethical for governments to use ICT in surveillance?

But is it? Well, Lyon (2001) argues that surveillance works more like the ‘panopticon’ concept, which was advanced by Michael Foucault in the 1970s. By placing a watchtower in prison, Foucault argued that prisoners got the sense that they were constantly being watched and therefore engaged in disciplined actions for fear of being punished. In the same manner, Lyon argues that ICT enabled surveillance is a tool that is directed at shaping behaviour rather than invading private lives. In the same light, Ioannides and Tondini (2010) moralise surveillance as a preventative approach used by governments or other entities to prevent people within their administrative jurisdictions from external threats. .249)at R v Duarte 1990 (, a case that occurred in Canada, it was argued that “one can scarcely imagine a state activity more dangerous to individual privacy than electronic surveillance” R v DuarteIn

While the ‘panopticon’ concept is just one way to view surveillance, critics such as Slobogin (2007) disagree; to him, surveillance is more like the ‘big brother’ metaphor used by George Orwell to describe a centralised environment where bureaucratic control is used by governments hence contravening on privacy and human dignity. According to Slobogin (2007), ICTs have brought a new form of surveillance where governments are now able to intercept real-time communication, access recorded information, and observe the real-time physical activities of the citizenry. Lyon (2001) extends this line of thinking by arguing that in addition to government surveillance on citizens, there are other ‘little brothers’ who are perpetuating surveillance and hence lessening the personal space where individuals get to enjoy privacy. Employers who monitor their employees fall in the latter category.

While surveillance in itself is not bad when used in relation to enhancing security, ethics is contravened when the data, information or knowledge obtained is used to harm, treat unfairly, discriminate, or make assumptions about people. To uphold ethical principles therefore, Van den Hoven and Vermaas (2007) observe the need to protect personal data in order to prevent information-based harm, inequality, and injustice. Additionally protecting personal data obtained through surveillance shows that governments (or other entities in charge of the surveillance) have respect for the moral autonomy of individuals.

(2007), such risks do not exist because most governments do not have data protection laws that determine how information obtained through surveillance should be handled. The absence of such laws hence raises ethical concerns since a significant fraction of the citizenry feel that information gathering should not be done without their consent. Others feel that surveillance (if any) should be participatory, transparent and open. Hoven and VermaasUnfortunately, no guarantees exist regarding how government or surveillance entities use the data, information or knowledge obtained. There exists a degree of risk that the same information could end up in the wrong hands hence exposing the monitored people to physical or financial harm. Sharing of information obtained through surveillance could also subject people to discrimination and exploitation. According to

With enhanced ICT increasing the capacity for surveillance, Invernizzi (2011) identifies three main ethical issues that need to be addressed:

1) Surveillance in the workplace and the effect it has on workplace control — the increased use of technologies makes monitoring employees much easier for employers. In situations where demanding goals are placed on them, the employees are often caught between abiding by their employer’s wishes and losing their jobs. According to Invernizzi (2011), such control is directly or indirectly linked to high stress levels and health problems in the workers.

2) Political participation versus political control — as was evident in the uprising of civilian populations against governments in the Arab world in the 2010-2011 periods, the use of ICTs in politics has far-reaching ethical consequences. In addition to allowing civilian populations to organise into interest groups, ICTs have also provided platforms where opinion makers for different parts of the world can influence domestic policy interests. For example, a foreign government can urge civilian populations to carry on with demands on their government. Ethical questions hence arise regarding a country’s sovereignty, and dominant world’s governments’ ability to manipulate civilian populations in less influential countries.

3) Dominant cultures, e.g. the American culture is likely to become more dominant thus eroding other cultures. Invernizzi (2011) argues that such trends could bring about cultural colonialism. To a great extent, ICTs have played a major role in the propagation of the dominant cultures to different parts of the world.

The Case of the United States and Britain

In the US, the citizenry’s right to privacy is protected by the constitution’s fourth amendment, which indicates that any searches by the government on personal property should be backed by a probable cause. Regardless of such protection however, Slobogin (2007) argues that the US government is ever more determined to use surveillance currently than was case in previous years due to rising terrorism threats. While surveillance for the sake of averting security threats is plausible, it is worth noting that it also poses a significant threat to the legitimate individual freedoms to the point of preventing people from expressing what they believe, do what they think is right, or even become the people they are. In short, surveillance can diminish personal autonomy and privacy. Unfortunately, most technological devices that are currently available for use by the government do not involve physical intrusion of the one’s space and hence cannot be defined as ‘searches’. Additionally, Niento (1997) argues that when surveillance occurs in publicly traversable spaces, or in a physically non-intrusive manner, then the public does not have any recourse under the law.

Despite the recognition that surveillance is the most disconcerting form of monitoring by a government on its people, authors such as Niento (1997) believe that enhancing security is a paramount duty of the state. Any ethical issues therefore are inferior to the larger need to secure the country against all forms of security threats.

Unlike the US, Britain does not have a bill of rights to protect the citizenry against government’s acts that undermine their privacy rights and privileges. Niento (1997) cites a case in point where a video entitled, “really caught in the act” was made from CCTV images and sold in video stores. While this was clearly unethical, individuals captured on the tape do not have as much room for recourse against the government agencies who revealed the CCTV footage to commercial producers. In the US however, the government agency would have been legally responsible.

In Britain, the House of Lords has raised concerns regarding the unselective dissemination of information, data or knowledge obtained through surveillance, and has stated that although technology components such as CCTV cameras have improved security in the country significantly, they have the potential of leading to “greater stigmatisation, more discrimination, more social exclusion and a society of greater suspicion where trust is reduced” (House of Lords, 2009, p. 28), if the information gathered is used in other ways other than in enhancing security.

While the US has a bill of rights that gives citizens some relative protection under the law, Britain has none and hence its citizenry are more exposed to unethical use of data gathered through surveillance by government agencies. Despite this slight difference in laws, it is rather obvious that the two countries need to develop a regulatory framework that will outline how surveillance data is stored, retrieved, and shared in order to uphold ethical behaviour in the respective societies. Perhaps the US needs to expand the context in which the term ‘search’ as used in the fourth amendment can be applied as suggested by Slobogin (2007). Britain on its part would need to formulate regulations that determine ethical use of data obtained through surveillance. As Fule and Roddick (2004) aptly state, “It is entirely possible to act unethically yet legally” (p.1). Hence, governments need to lay the legal framework needed to guide ethical behaviour in surveillance, and in handling the information gathered through it. To avoid a situation where privacy is violated without justifiable reasons, governments need to define different situations that would warrant surveillance. Ideally, surveillance should be done only in situations where the interest of the larger society demands it. For example, invading people’s privacy as a way of preventing a major terrorism catastrophe can be justified from a moral standpoint. However, invading people’s privacy without a reasonable probable cause of doing so would be tantamount to curtailing people’s basic rights to privacy. Sharing information gathered through surveillance for other uses other than the intended should also be discouraged through legal and constitutional means.


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