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Information Ethics

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ethical issues on this page
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There are a number of ethical issues that can arise in information management. 
the responsibility of the analyst towards the organization
Data protection
& privacy
the responsibility of the organization towards the data subject
Business ethics the responsibility of the organization towards society
& justice
the responsibility of society towards the data subject
Ethics of Modelling

Privacy and Data Protection
Data ownership
Privacy and granularity

Discrimination and Justice
Criterion ownership
Secret past
Blacklists and whitelists
Information management
Information notions
Security notions

Asymmetric Information
Privacy and Confidentiality


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Modelling Ethics

veryard projects > information management > ethics > modelling

A model is not merely a description of the real world.  It expresses some intentions about the real world.  When modelling people, therefore, the model expresses intentions relating to these people, including the intention to judge people according to particular criteria.

The inclusion of particular criteria in an information model, enabling particular decision or selection processes, therefore has ethical and legal implications.  If people are judged according to inaccurate or inappropriate data, and if subjective assessments are mistaken for reliable facts, the information model carries some of the responsibility for this.  The analyst cannot hide behind the convenient fiction of moral neutrality.

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Data Ownership

veryard projects > information management > ethics > data ownership

Who ‘owns’ the data?
Does a company own the data it has collected about a person?
Does the person himself/herself have any ownership rights over his/her ‘own’ data?
more Who Owns Your Mother's Maiden Name?
Privacy and Confidentiality

The ownership rights, of course, entail an identity rule - in order to show that a record on a database belongs to me (i.e. that I have certain rights of access and correction to the record), I have to prove that it refers to me (and not to someone else with the same name).

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Privacy and Granularity

veryard projects > information management > ethics > privacy and granularity

Three possible ways of capturing personal information, in database records for each PERSON:

1 A single occurrence of PERSON for each human being.
2 A single occurrence of PERSON for each human being in each (socio-economic) role.
3 Personal information aggregated into demographic or behavioural statistics.

One of the aims of the UK Data Protection Act (and of similar legislation in other countries) is to prevent the combination of data from several sources, for purposes other than that for which the data were originally collected. This means that (2) is preferred to (1). For some purposes, we are only allowed access to statistical aggregations of data, but not the raw data themselves. This means that (3) is preferred to (1) and (2).

Then the fun is to predict the behaviour of an individual from the demographic data, for example:

Thus it is possible to dis-aggregate and restore data, to return to the individual person from the anonymous totals and averages. Of course, this process introduces errors and inaccuracies. Does this benefit the person whose privacy is at stake? Hardly! Imagine: you are denied a loan because you live in a dubious district, or you belong to some demographic category that the statisticians depreciate.
more Grain and Granularity

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Classification and Discrimination

veryard projects > information management > ethics > discrimination

One of the ways we simplify and make sense of the world is by dividing people and things into classes.  This reduces the amount of information we have to collect, maintain and consider.  If a teacher assumes that all eight-year-old boys are the same, if a recruitment officer assumes that all black women engineering graduates are the same, or if an advertising draftsman assumes that all consumers of chocolate are the same, this saves the trouble of considering each individual separately. But such simplifications may be intellectually lazy, and they sometimes result in gross injustice.

Classification of some sort is a necessary fact of life.  We want to be able to discriminate between capable and incapable, safe and dangerous, polite and rude, even perhaps good and evil.  But sometimes classification is arbitrary; and there may be as many classifications as there are interested parties.

The very word ‘discrimination’ is often used to denote unjust or unfavourable treatment of an identifiable group of people.  But it is a fallacy to think that classification itself, or discrimination are themselves inherently undesirable.  After all, unfair discrimination can only be recognized (let alone corrected) by a similar (but not necessarily equally unfair) discrimination: if a black woman engineer wishes to prove that she has been unfairly discriminated against because of her colour or sex or qualifications, she must herself classify herself in this way.

Classification of people is not just a necessary evil, but is (most of the time) a useful and acceptable procedure.  Consider schools, for example, where at first sight the word ‘class’ appears to have a rather different meaning.  However, schoolchildren are divided into classes by some classification, based on age (usually), sex (often), ability (possibly), mother tongue (perhaps), or some other characteristics.  (For the rich, for the physically disabled or musically talented, and for religious minorities, there may even be separate schools.)  Too great a diversity of children within a class makes it impossible for the teacher to communicate effectively with the whole class.  Educationalists may argue at great length exactly which characteristics should be used, and exactly how much diversity or uniformity is desirable, but few of them would expect a 16-year-old bookworm, who spoke three languages but whose English was rudimentary, to be forced to learn alongside a 9-year-old who couldn’t yet read, and only spoke English.
more Classification as form of Abstraction

Identity and Difference

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Who controls the criteria by which you will be judged?

veryard projects > information management > ethics > criterion ownership

Iranian women wear robes so they will not be judged by beauty but by less superficial qualities. To what extent is a person able to choose (or at least veto) the criteria by which they are evaluated?

You cannot (or at least should not) introduce new criteria of relevance. (This is why retrospective legislation is frowned upon.) For example, if an employee is told that the criteria for promotion to the next grade are such-and-such, and then told (after struggling to attain the set standard) that the criteria have now changed (this is known as moving the goalposts), s/he may be disheartened.

Collecting additional information about employees’ performance may inadvertently have this effect. Employees (and their representatives) can sometimes be very suspicious of additional performance measurement, because they expect it to influence and alter the existing criteria for promotion and remuneration.

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Do you have a secret past?

veryard projects > information management > ethics > secret past

How much right does a person have, to keep his/her past behaviour hidden? For example, does a person have the right to have a criminal offence forgotten (after a certain number of years have elapsed), or does the prospective employer have the right to know everything about the person? Does a person have a right to know the family medical history of her fiancé or his fiancée (which could affect the prospects of rearing healthy children)?

Information, at least as defined by computer programmers and bureaucrats, is intolerant of ambiguity. People are defined by a relatively small number of attributes, in a fixed way.  A rash act at university, or in adolescence, can dog a man for life. You are what you have once done:- that’s a very dangerous doctrine. It labels people permanently as subversives, communists, homosexuals, drug addicts or whatever. (It was only in 1870, according to Foucault, that Carl Westphal transformed the practice of sodomy to the state of homosexuality. “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”)

Under English law, certain types of information are excluded at certain stages of a criminal trial. Previous offences are not to be mentioned until the verdict has been reached, but may be considered in deciding the sentence. However, minor offences are supposed to be deleted from the record altogether after a set time period.

This is a deliberate attempt to separate the individual from his/her historical behaviour. This allows an individual to be distanced from the past. Otherwise a criminal record can act as a millstone, preventing even the truly repentant criminal from ever going straight, because nobody will give him a straight job, or a mortgage, or an overdraft, or decent housing, or whatever.

It is a difficult moral decision. If A trusts B with the care of children, or money, or whatever, should A be informed that B has once been convicted of abusing a similar trust in the past? It's easy to say yes to that question - but suppose that B has never been convicted, but has been tried and acquitted (thanks to insufficient evidence, or perhaps some legal technicality). Now suppose that B has never been tried, but has been questioned by police on several occasions, and there have been unsupported allegations in the press. Should all of this information be public knowledge? What aspects of B’s past history is A entitled to know, and what aspects is B entitled to put behind him/her? Should B be allowed to bury the past and rebuild his/her reputation?

Surely B should be allowed to forget minor breaches of the law, committed many years ago and properly punished, provided that B has not lapsed since. And surely it is unfair to repeatedly confront B with unproven and possibly malicious allegations and accusations. Howewer, there may well be some incidents that B should never be allowed to forget or conceal.

According to English libel law, it is insufficient defence against a charge of libel that what is published happens to be true. Thus truth and honesty must be weighed against reputation. The American approach is different. Several candidates have been forced to drop out of the race for the Presidency, their reputations sullied by the uncovering of sometimes quite bygone indiscretions.

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Blacklists and whitelists

veryard projects > information management > ethics > blacklists

Blacklists are often used when vetting people for credit risk or for employment that involves some security risk.  As a result of clerical error, bad luck or malicious misrepresentation, a person may be unfairly included on such a blacklist, causing that person to be refused employment or credit.  In theory (although there are many exceptions), the UK Data Protection Act allows such a person to discover their inclusion on a blacklist, and appeal to have their name removed.

To evade such controls, some organizations now use whitelists.  A whitelist includes everyone that is an acceptable credit risk or security risk.  Exclusion from a whitelist has exactly the same effect as inclusion in a blacklist, except that there is no legal mechanism for redress.

Implementing a whitelist solely in order to evade these controls is immoral.  Any organization using either whitelists or blacklists has a moral responsibility to maintain the accuracy of the list, and to enable any valid correction process.

If you have to have a list at all, probably the best solution from an information modelling point of view, as well as from an ethical point of view, is to combine blacklist and whitelist into a single list, based on the entity type PERSON, differentiated by an attribute indicating whether s/he is acceptable or unacceptable.  Furthermore, the evidence supporting acceptability or unacceptability should be preserved, to provide an audit trail enabling efficient and effective correction.  There should also be a mechanism for deleting past misdemeanours, as discussed above.

Some of this material was first published in my 1992 book.

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This page last updated on August 31st, 2001
Copyright © 1992, 2001 Veryard Projects Ltd