The immorality of putting the naive and vulnerable on-line

How ethical is it to try to persuade the socially-excluded and digitally naive to go on-line when you are not going to provide them with easy to use and secure access or keep the data they enter secure from predators, fraudsters or those who would use it to enforce the “honour” of the family, clan, school, gang or other community?


In one of my recent blogs I asked for questions for the European Community workshop session that I will be chairing on the Ethics of Government On-line systems.

I did not get many postings although I was most grateful for the one that drew my attention to “Naked in the Panopticon” – a most thoughtful article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, on student responses to the discovery that their Social Networking sites were being mined for personal information to aid targetted advertising etc.

That cross-referred to some fascinating reading – and reminded me that that Fidel Castro was imprisoned in the Presidio Model – the Cuban panopticon prison. Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated, was indeed correct to sabotage Jeremy Bentham’s original Panopticon pilot, even though it had been approved by Parliament. It would have done nothing to save him from Bellingham’s bullet and provides an interesting counterpoint to today’s debates on the surveillance society.

Among the questions in the e-mails sent direct to me were:

Is it ethical to construct an on-line experience depending on what one can infer about a customer / citizen?

There is a wealth of “publicly available” data that enables one to know far more about a person than they think they have revealed and fast track their request for benefits or other help accordingly.

Might it not be seen an immoral not to use such information – especially if the result is avoidable pain, suffering or even death?

But against this needs to be set the question of how those who purchase and run government on-line services assess the risk associated with unauthorised access to citizen’s personal data? (Risk = probability * damage caused). And if they fail to analyse and calculate the probabilities of risk against those of benefit, is that equally unethical?

Equally interesting is how the security criteria for on-line systems that handle citizen’s personal data compare with the security criteria applied to political briefings between officials and Ministers or Commissioners, or the papers of internal Departmental or Commission meetings?

Is the security classification of citizens’ personal data lower? If so, how can this be justified as ethical?

Are the same security criteria applied to the records of those at risk of domestic violence, child abuse, forced marriage as to those of the rich and famous being hunted by investigative journalists, stalkers and fraudsters?

And if not, why not?

I had such questions at the forefront of my mind when I went to the RSA pre-launch party for Jonathan Zittrain’s new book “The Future of Internet and How to Stop it” As usual when you attend a Zittrain lecture, you get carried away and suspend disbelief, then apply your mind and discover that 2 + 2 = 42.

More seriously, he put my thoughts into the context of the tensions betwen a controlled and stuctured net and an open and evolving network of networks – with the balance now threatening to swing back towards control because social pressure has failed to deter malpractice.

The current state of interplay between policy and technology is, however, best summarised in a splendid cartoon sent to me by Roland Perry of e-victims-org, the first site dedicated to helping the casualties of malpractice.

The image of a shambolic building site fits well with Vint Cerf’s description of how the Internet moved straight from test bed to unconstrained growth – without the expected pause for re-engineering after the tri-network pilot showed that the concept worked, even over the unreliable packet switched radio networks of the day.

Vint’s summary, at a lecture at the Cass Business School after being made a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technology, of the work still outstanding (after forty years) adds grist to the need for realistic, as well as holistic debate.

One fifth of the population of the world is now on-line. If the Internet stopped we would face a breakdown of food, less alone financial, distribution within hours. The benefits and the risks are both enormous. Perhaps the biggest ethical failure is that of the ICT industry to recognise its responsbility for identifying and enforcing good professional practice in assessing and managing the balance between risk and reward and in educating its customers accordingly. Blinding customers with a mix of platitudes and jargon while following high profit, high prestige, high risk strategies is indefensible.

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