Cyber Ethics in the Real World

Reading your company’s technology Acceptable Use Policy might be as interesting as reading the dictionary or your favorite IRS publication. But before you sign it and file it away, take some time to familiarize yourself with it and dig a little deeper. What is contained in this document may have more practical, real-life application for your every day job than anything else in the stack of compliance stuff that you sign to get your job. Without rehashing your Acceptable Use Policy here, there are some serious ethical considerations.

First, understand that the company-owned computer or device is not yours. Just because your puppy’s picture is on the desktop and you have the high score on solitaire, doesn’t make it any more yours, even if you’re the only person who ever uses it. The reality is, your expensive laptop or tablet you carry is merely borrowed equipment. Someone else paid for it and that owner has the right do what he or she wants with “your” computer. Your ethical responsibility is to treat it like anything else you borrow: with respect and care.

Additionally, the rightful owner can ask for it back anytime and dictate what you can and can’t do. You have no Constitutional right to privacy either. Your company email, web surfing, and most everything you do on that machine is open for review by your employer. If you invent something that will solve the world’s energy problems while on the company computer on company time, guess who could take ownership of that invention? That’s right, your employer. A good perspective is to look at your computer as just another piece of office equipment that you use to make your job easier.

Using the company computers or devices for personal use will always present ethical boundary issues. There are probably only a handful of people walking the planet who haven’t checked their personal email, shopped online, or composed a personal letter on their work computer. So how can you resolve this? First, find out what the boundaries are. Maybe your company allows occasional use or maybe it doesn’t. Or, maybe it doesn’t officially allow personal use but usually overlooks it. Whatever the case may be, find out the truth and don’t make any assumptions.

Second, if occasional use is allowed, it may be tempting to go overboard and reinterpret “occasional” to mean something different. Consider your occasional use of the computer to be the same as the phone, copy machine, or any other piece of office equipment. You may use the phone occasionally to make personal appointments during lunch or breaks, but not to chat with distant relatives at length. Your company may allow a few personal photocopies now and then but certainly does not want their equipment to take the place of a local copy store. It’s the same for personal technology. You must show restraint, good judgment, and boundaries.

Of course the most costly and devastating ethical problem with personal technology is security. Keeping your device secure, both physically and in the cyber world is the most critical security consideration you have. You hear about government laptops getting lost, computer viruses or malware bringing corporations to their knees, or hackers stealing ideas and identities. You can’t be sloppy in how you protect your machine. You need to guard it against hackers and viruses, not store sensitive data on your machine, secure your computer, and obey any and all guidelines and recommendations from your company. If your IT department sounds paranoid, they have very good reason to be.

But in a more subtle way, use of personal technology provides fundamental moral challenges to our notion of honesty and ethics. Software piracy and other music, software, and video piracy cannot be allowed any latitude on your devices. Most people wouldn’t go into a store and steal a CD or piece of software or shoplift a book, but downloading or copying it for “free” can be rationalized. What’s on your computer or cloud is the ultimate test of the ethical standard, “Character is what you do when nobody is looking?” Little things like this do matter. An ethical person should not only make this a rule at work but at home as well. The problem with software piracy and copyright is that doing something illegal has never been so easy and widely rationalized. No matter what the culture says, the moral principle of stealing remains – if you didn’t pay for it, it is stealing.

The bottom line is this: Cyber ethics is no different from any other kind of ethics. To be ethical, you must make the moral choice to obey the laws, respect people and property, and play by the rules. In every area of life, you should do the right thing no matter who’s the boss or who’s watching. An Acceptable Use Policy should be a clear reminder that in the cyber world, your ethics should not be virtual but be real.