Ethical analysis behind computer engineering and information security



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ETHICAL ANALYSIS BEHIND COMPUTER ENGINEERING AND INFORMATION SECURITY
John Sigg (jds154@pitt.edu)



THE SCENARIO
In the future, I have become a Computer Engineer. I have been hired by Pear Incorporated, a company known for its success across the electronic entertainment community. As one of the world’s largest and most successful tech companies, they have created popular electronics that the majority of the world’s population uses on a day to day basis. Among these devices are the Pear Phone, a device that has been flawlessly crafted to fit the needs of any user. Its user interface is accessible to a large range of age groups since there are hundreds of thousands of apps to compliment such a perfect design. At one point, the Pear Phone was the best-selling mobile device in the world. As time progressed, the successive Pear Phones became less and less of an innovation and more so a refined version of the original, glorious Pear Phone. Pear Incorporated’s sales have slowly declined over time, leaving the company behind their number one competitor, Pamsung. At the same time every year, Pear Incorporated and Pamsung release a mobile device to hit the stores just before the holiday season. This is where I come in. I am one of the head programmers for Pear Incorporated and more specifically, in charge of designing the user interface for the newest Pear Phone. I am approached by my boss, the Vice President of Pear Incorporated, but he seems to be in a different mood than normal. He pulls me aside to his office for what he calls “important news.” He informs me that the release of the new Pamsung phone will attract so many buyers that Pear Incorporated will lose money making the next Pear Phone in the production sequence. With my background in internet security and programming, he wants me to hack into Pamsung’s database in order to find out every last detail of the newest Pamsung phone. If Pamsung is doing better than Pear Incorporated, there needs to be a new, better phone from Pear Incorporated that bests Pamsung’s new device in every way possible. If I can pull this off, my boss promises me that the profit the new Pear Phone will make will allow for a raise in my salary. If I fail, Pear Incorporated is at risk for potential bankruptcy. I am stuck with the hardest decision of my life, as I must choose between what is right and what is easy.
ETHICAL PROPOSAL
Pear Incorporated has asked me to perform a task that is wrong on a multitude of levels. It is my decision to not only break the law, they have proposed that I plagiarize the ideas that an innovator has suggested for Pamsung’s new mobile device. This decision could lead to endless praise and a higher salary, or it could end in the downfall of Pear Incorporated as a competitive electronic industry. In order to make my decision, I must use any resources at my disposal. I will consult multiple codes of ethics and case studies in order to more correctly make the decision appropriate to what a typical engineer in my field would do. In particular, I will consult the code of ethics that governs the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM). The combination of these codes of ethics and the case studies that have arisen in the past, I will be able to make a more informed decision with respect to this difficult topic.
NATIONAL SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS
The code of ethics for the NSPE is the overarching guide to ethical decision making across all engineering professions. For this reason, it will be very helpful in helping me make the correct ethical decision in my particular situation. The NSPE code is first divided into six fundamental canons. Upon reading these canons, I realized that three of the six canons do not directly apply to the situation I am in. This is because my predicament deals primarily with corporate espionage, and not so much with “Holding paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” “Performing services only in areas of competence” or “acting for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees” [1]. However, the remaining three canons do apply to my moral dilemma. Firstly, “engineers should avoid acts of deception” [1]. In my situation, my boss is directly telling me to be deceptive. This is manifested in Section Three of the NSPE code of ethics. “Engineers shall give credit for engineering work to those whom credit is due, and will recognize the proprietary interests of others” [1]. By taking Pamsung’s mobile device ideas, we receive an edge in the upcoming sale cycle of each company’s phones. Pear Incorporated will not only be taking Pamsung’s ideas, they will use those ideas as a launch point to incorporate new, better ideas into the newest Pear Phone. This is classified as unlawful use of another engineer’s designs for another purpose, which is directly spoken against in the NSPE code of ethics. Not only would I be taking these ideas for Pear Incorporated, I would then be the one responsible for any repercussions in the sales the come from both company’s phones. This is true because of deviation from another core canon of the NSPE code of ethics, “Issuing public statements only in an objective and truthful manner” [1]. This statement implies that any public announcements made by any corporation should not be inspired by ideas that are not specific to that individual corporation. By taking Pamsung’s ideas, Pear Incorporation uses them as inspiration for a better mobile device than that which would have originally been created. This results in Pear Incorporated putting their own interest before the dignity and honesty of the profession. Lastly, as the remaining relevant canon, engineers should, “conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession” [1]. I would not be conducting myself in any of the behaviors listed. I would be dishonest, as I am claiming another company’s designs as my own. I would be irresponsible and unethical, because I am directly breaking the code of ethics that serves as an umbrella of morality for all engineers. I would be acting unlawfully, because I am directly breaking the law through the act of corporate espionage. Through all of these actions, I would be tarnishing the honor, reputation and usefulness of the engineering profession by putting shame to the ethical basis on which it was derived.
ASSOCIATION FOR COMPUTER MACHINERY
Like the NSPE, the ACM is governed by a similar code of ethics. The only difference is that this code is targeted more toward the specific majors surrounding computer technology. Also like the NSPE code of ethics, there are a set of canons that the ACM code is governed by. Due to the heightened specificity of the ACM code of ethics, I feel that it is also appropriate in helping me take the right course of action. There are a greater number of canons that apply to my situation in this code. For starters, “Avoid harm to others” [2] is something that is very broad, but can also be taken seriously on many levels. By stealing designs from Pamsung, Pear Incorporated is potentially inflicting harm in many different areas. By creating a better phone, Pear has the potential to harm Pamsung’s sales while benefitting their own. Also, Pear could be subject to lawsuits that could harm the well-being of their entire staff. Lastly, my actions would reflect poorly of me and may potentially end up hurting my reputation and any future job opportunities that I may have. The second canon I would be breaking is, “Be honest and trustworthy” [2]. My actions do not only hold weight with respect to Pear Incorporated and myself, but also to computer engineers on a larger scale. By voluntarily being associated with a group like ACM, my actions can stand for the group as a whole. Each individual engineer is responsible for upholding the ACM’s code of ethics. Failure to abide by these canons can tarnish the reputation of the ACM. Next, the ACM requires that its engineers, “honor property rights and give proper credit for intellectual property” [2]. As reflected upon in the NSPE code of ethics, stealing design ideas from another person or company is corporate espionage. This can ruin not only my career but the reputation of Pear Incorporated if the plan were to fail and I was caught. Lastly, another offense comes from, “respecting the privacy of others and honor confidentiality” [2]. Computer technology allows for an incredible amount of accessible, convenient trafficking of information. By stealing information, I not only break the law but I break the sanctity of Pamsung’s internet trafficking peace of mind. I tarnish the reputation of secure computing and attack a vulnerability for the sake of personal gain. All of these violations can result in the removal of an individual from the ACM, which is a valuable group that can enhance your networking ability [2] and help aid you in a successful career as a computer engineer.
ETHICS BEHIND INFORMATION THEFT
The two codes of ethics above provide me with a solid foundation to make an educated and ethical decision regarding my situation. Alongside these codes, there are multiple case studies that not only deal with information theft, but also the consequences of publishing information that is somebody else’s. In the first case I found, an undergraduate student at one university was contacted by a graduate student at another university and a discussion developed about the undergraduate’s most recent research. The graduate student asked very pointed questions about the research, and after a litter of emails were sent back and forth, the graduate student published the research of the undergraduate student without their permission. The graduate student is faced with multiple legal and ethical offenses [3]. The scenario does not directly relate to my situation, but the ethical principles behind it are very relatable. In terms of stealing information, I was told to perform a certain action, so I would receive a decent amount of the punishment. However, this does not just end with me and my boss. The entire company could feel the weight of our course of action. Any financial backing the company has may be stripped away. Any sponsors we have may back out of their contracts. Also, future career prospects for individuals in the company could be ruined. By violating our profession’s ethical creed, we would also bring shame to other engineers. My boss and I could also lose our jobs and have a difficult time finding work in our respective futures. Among all of the other case studies, there were few that related to my topic. Upon browsing the remaining studies, there was one main takeaway I grasped: there are serious consequences. The potential upsides to committing offenses come nowhere close to the downsides. Losing your job and creating a poor reputation for yourself has tremendous weight in the engineering field. Based on what I have read, I am leaning farther and farther away from doing what my boss wants of me.
ENGINEERING IN THE PUBLIC EYE
The Royal Academy of Engineering holds a meeting where a board of trustees discuss the general ethics of engineering. They created an original statement of ethical principles after they held their first meeting in October of 2005. One of the issues that they heavily invest in is the role of an engineer in society, which also includes the role of the institutions they work for. Both engineers as individuals and institutions as a whole have the duty to keep public interest in mind [4]. This means that individuals also have responsibilities to their institutions as do institutions the same to their individuals. To a further extent, this means that an institution should not ask unethical things of the individuals that work for them. By doing so, they tarnish their duty to the public. So, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, Pear Incorporated is at fault for asking me to do something that would break the pact of responsibility that the engineering profession holds with society. I would also be at fault for following through with the action, but it is unethical for Pear to ask such a thing from me in the first place. In another article, writer Abbas El-Zein discusses similar ethical dilemmas in his article “As Engineers, We Must Consider the Ethical Implications of Our Work.” Abbas discusses the ethical backing behind engineers making military weaponry and how engineers should be conscious of the effect of their work [5]. While not directly related to cyber security or computer engineering, the concept of ethical work still holds true for both military design and ethical computer engineering. Whenever an engineer does something, they need to be conscious of the effects of their products. Everything an engineer does is a reflection of the major. I would not want to reflect poorly on the engineering profession by participating in an unethical act like corporate espionage or plagiarism of another’s ideas.
PERSONAL REFLECTION
I am really close with my father and I tend to talk to him about a lot of issues in my life. Whenever I want to talk we go for a car ride in his GMC Sierra 4x4 and we just drive until I get all of my feelings out. I am really thankful for his open mind whenever it comes to my feelings. Regardless, I went to talk to him about this and we went for our typical car ride in the 4x4. We talked about the ups and downs of the situation. Knowing I was undecided, he said, “Whatever you do, just act as if Grandma Sigg was watching” [6]. That was all that it took. Just a little reassurance from my father and I knew what the right course of action was.
THE DECISION
I finally decided to not press for the stealing of Pamsung’s ideas for their newest mobile phone. I concluded that it was not worth risking my entire career as an engineer in order to potentially benefit the future of Pear Incorporated. I decided to leave it up to economic Darwinism and let the better of the two mobile devices grasp the majority of the sales. By using multiple codes of ethics, case studies, and the watchful eye of Grandma Sigg, I was able to make an educated and ethical decision when dealing with the situation I had at hand.
REFERENCES
[1] (2007). “NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.” National Society of Professional Engineers. (Code of ethics). http://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics

[2] (1992). “ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.” Association for Computing Machinery. (Code of ethics). http://www.acm.org/about/code-of-ethics?searchterm=code+of+ ethics

[3] “It’s All About Sharing…” webGuru: Guide for Undergraduate Research (Online case study). http://www.webguru.neu.edu/professionalism/case-studies/its-all-about-sharing

[4] J. Uff. (2003). “The Engineer’s Public Duty – The Role of the Institutions.” Royal Academy of Engineering. (Online Article). http://www.ingenia.org.uk/ingenia/articles.aspx?Index=211

[5]A. El-Zein (2013). “As Engineers, We Must Consider the Ethical Implications of Our Work.” The Guardian. (Online Article). http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/05/engineering-moral-effects-technology-impact

[6]Dan Sigg


ADDITIONAL SOURCES

- (2009). “Cases and Scenarios.” National Academy of Engineering. (Online database). http://www.onlineethics.org/Resources/Cases.aspx

- “Ethics Cases.” National Institute for Engineering Ethics. (Online database). http://www.depts.ttu.edu/murdoughcenter/products/cases.php

- GMC Sierra 4x4


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank my parents for helping me devise an appropriate ethical scenario to discuss in this essay. Since they are both engineers, they were very helpful in creating a scenario that was directed towards my major. I would like to especially thank my father for guidance in finding appropriate codes of ethics for my topic. Lastly, I would like to thank my academic advisor for helping me structure my time in order to get this essay done a day before it was due.




University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering

2015-11-03

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