Ethics and IT

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In the court of public opinion, IT never really seems to get a fair break.  When “true IT” makes the news, it is usually about some government project going billions over budget, viruses attacking old people, and Google Maps sending people driving along the train tracks.

When something good *does* happen – like an iPad curing cancer – it’s a “oh great, another reason we now have to support ipads….”  Bottom line, it never seems to work out well for the sysadmin crowd.

And now we have Edward Snowden.  I’m going to try very, very hard to leave politics out of this, but factually, I think we can all agree that Snowden released information that he was either directed (or contractually obligated) to keep confidential.

Ethics hits IT in a few different ways.  Mostly it is about being honest and upfront when you know you can get away with things by snowing people with gobbledygook.  It can be something as minor as deciding who gets the new computer, the hot new interior designer girl who will use it for facebook or the very annoying Architect who will really push it.

Some of the toughest calls require HR to get involved, for oversight and guidance.  I’ve never ever had a problem giving managers access to subordinates emails, but apparently some people in Canada do.   Am I uncomfortable when I install web monitoring software for a firm without letting the users know, or putting up screen capture software to see what an employee is doing all day?  Yes, and I’ve argued against it when I felt we shouldn’t be doing it, but at the end of the day, it is the company’s property, on the company’s network, and you’re on the company clock.

So that brings us to Mr. Snowden.  At some point in time or another in a sysadmin’s career, they may come across a piece of information that they feel is either morally or legally in question.  If there is any doubt that the IT guy *could* be the most informed person in your firm if they tried, remove it.  All emails? Sure.  Confidential legal documents? Yup.  HR files?  Easy.  Without anyone knowing? Of course.

I’ve found that most leadership takes an “out of sight, out of mind” approach on this.  Probably, somewhere, they realize it, but prefer not to think about it.  I’m not sure that is a great approach.  I find it odd that honesty and ethics are openly valued in say, Accounting, but less so in IT.  As Varys (Game of Thrones reference, sorry) said: “Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires”.

So did Snowden do the right thing or not?  That answer is probably determined by your personal beliefs and frankly irrelevant to this conversation.  What Snowden *has* done is pull back the curtain a bit on how really tied in Network Administrators are; how much info they have easy access to; and perhaps raise some awareness that IT people are not just problem solvers with blinders on, and hiring practices need to account for that.

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