Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 7 Secrecy and Security

Presentation of  Issues

Banks and financial firms, health institutions, businesses, educational institutions and individuals have reason to want to protect information from access by those not authorized by the creators or collectors of the database.  Inventors and scientists have reason to want to keep information concerning their research from unauthorized access as well. Law enforcement has information it wants to protect from access and, at times, reason to want to access information maintained by others.  Government has crucial need to protect information related to the security of the nation and, at times, wants access to information held in non-governmental database because it believes it may be vital to the national interest.

How are the competing needs for secrecy and security of the information and the need of governments for access to that information to be settled?  The value placed on individual privacy competes with the value of collective security.  

READ: Nicolas Wade, "Method and Madness: Little Brother",

Is there much to fear in government interests overwhelming the interests of individual and groups?

READ: "The Coming Police State"  by Tim May 

READ: Digital Privacy  Ethical Considerations from completed by Lester Dorman, Phil Lin, Adam Tow, and Stanford University

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized (United States, Fourth Amendment).

Encryption and the right to privacy go hand in hand with every American citizen's basic rights. In creating the Bill of Rights, the founding fathers explicitly placed obstacles in front of the government to allow for such freedom as privacy, speech, and religion. Over the years, the government has sought to refine and positively add to the Bill of Rights with various legislative actions. In fact, in an interview, Vice President Gore is quoted:

And sometimes the automatic assumption that you can simply create a new technology to solve a problem like that actually moves you farther from the solution rather than closer to it. We certainly see this in environmental problems where what I've called... 'technological hubris' can create more problems than it solves (Vice President Gore, Interview).

So we must be extremely careful in finding a solution to this problem that we actually make responsible and informed choices and that we not get entangled in the so-called hubris. For example, we have been repeatedly reminded of the nightmare scenario where Clipper does not seem to be safeguarding our privacy, but instead provides the government with an electronic surveillance camera aimed straight at every citizen's digital information. The government, with reasonable cause, of course, will know where we are, what we are doing, and with whom we are dealing. If the Big Brother has his way, it shall soon become possible, with a single flick of a switch, to instantly gain access to all of the digital information flow into and out of the United States. The network of surveillance that the government wants to install could be a move to reduce the rights of an individual to personal privacy to dust (Banisar).

Indeed, if we were ever to fall prey to a totalitarian government, encryption privacy would be an invaluable tool in the fight for regaining our freedom. Phil Zimmerman, the creator of PGP, brings this point graphically to life by quoting an electronic mail (e-mail) message he received from a Latvian, at the time of Boris Yeltsin's attacks on the Russian Parliament:

Phil I wish you to know: let it never be, but if dictatorship takes over Russia your PGP is widespread from Baltic to Far East now and will help democratic people if necessary. Thanks (Zimmerman, Testimony).

It is best, though, to keep things in perspective. While alarmists and conspiracy theorists might spread horrible tales of gloom and doom that suggest otherwise, we should remember that we do in fact live in a democratic society. Throughout the course of our country's history, we as a nation have decided that our law enforcement mechanisms should be empowered to search our possessions and monitor our phone communications, if a judge determines that it is necessary and appropriate. We have relinquished absolute personal freedom in exchange for protection from unscrupulous individuals who could harm ourselves and others.

And since we live in a society where absolute personal freedom doesn't exist, and never actually has, it seems fallacious to claim that we should in fact have that right in cyberspace. While it is important for citizens to keep a watchful eye on the government and keep it from abusing its power, it nevertheless seems quite narrow-minded and irresponsible to always consider the government to be the enemy who is just waiting to harm us as soon as it gets the chance.

Ethically speaking, it seems that the greatest good for the greatest number of people is realized when the citizens of this nation can live secure in the knowledge that their government will be able to combat and punish any attempt to harm them. Moreover, people should always be treated as means and not ends, and when this doesn't happen there needs to be some body (i.e. the government) which has the power to step in and make things right.

Ethics of Encryption

The Debate Over Cryptography and Scientific Freedom By Alexander Fowler

The Moral Issues: Applying Ethical Principles and the Dialectical Process

In approaching the questions, issues, problems and dilemmas posed by the situations presented by developments in computer technologies there is a need to analyze the situation and identify the key elements and values that may be involved and the ethical principles that can be brought to bear.  An argument needs to be developed in support of the position that is to be advanced as the preferred position on the moral question.  That position is then examined by others who hold different values or hold the same values in a different order and who would apply ethical principles in a different manner, rejecting one or another for reasons which should be given.  The process continues until there are enough people who think that one position is the best of the alternatives.  Given the nature of the original problem or question and the size of the populace who hold the one position of the majority there may be social policies or even legislation that would result.


The value held by many people is that of privacy.  Most people think that privacy had ought to be respected.  Following from this it is thought to be very important that people be permitted privacy.  The value placed on privacy  is  held highly in nearly all societies and particularly in democratic societies and is thought to be essential to the proper functioning of democracy as privacy is needed for the free communication of ideas to others and to support the formation of associations and groups participating in various ways in the process of governing.

The value of privacy may enter into conflict with the value of security.  In addition to the value of privacy people also think that their security and the security of their society are very important.  There are times when the two values are in conflict and constitutes a moral dilemma as to the resolution of the conflict and the ordering of the values.

It is one thing when individual privacy is set against the need for security for the nation and it is a not altogether a different sort of conflict when it is individual privacy set against the need for the security of information networks.  It is again another sort of situation when individual privacy is set against the need of employers to monitor their employees.

Ethical Principles

Ethical egoists might think that the use or exploitation of the privacy of others is morally correct, but there are no other ethical principles that could be used to support that general conclusion.  Arguments can be and have been advanced for limited violations or denials of privacy based on other principles. 

In applying utility to this conflict between privacy and the need for security arguments can be advanced that certain limitations on privacy and invasions of privacy may satisfy the interests of the greatest numbers of people where there is a clear threat to their security.  Under certain circumstances utility can be used to provide support for the conclusion that some limits on privacy are morally correct.  In each case the evidence would need to be provided to support the claim that the consequences of actions that limit or violate privacy do lead to a maximizing of utility

For Kant the Categorical Imperative would lead one to conclude that it is morally correct to respect privacy.  This is something that is universalizable.  It is also possible to formulate a maxim for conduct that would support some limited restrictions or exceptions to the right of privacy.  It might be seen as treating people as means to an end in examining their personal lives and denying or limiting their privacy to conduct their affairs, form associations and have personal relationships. 

For Rawls the Principle of Justice involves promoting a maximum of liberty while improving the lot of those least well off-minimizing the differences.  Preserving privacy would be promoting a maximization of liberty.   Permitting limited restriction on or invasion of privacy might be argued as  consonant with the Principle of Justice.  Not to permit some such limits could be argued as appreciably worsening the security of the society and particularly worsening the situation for those who might be victims of the actions of others being protected by an absolute right of privacy.

Other arguments can be advanced in support of resolutions of this dilemma and an argument can be developed using a multiplicity of ethical principles in support of particular conclusion as to what resolution is morally correct.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents