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Government IT must consider privacy, ethics

U.S. government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are being pitched many new technologies, but government technologists have an obligation to consider ethical and moral issues such as privacy when embracing new applications, concluded a panel of technology experts speaking at the FOSE government computing trade show.

AFFIRM (the Association for Federal Information Resources Management) plans to launch a Web site addressing technology and ethics within weeks and eventually issue a white paper on related topics.

Hastings and Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, questioned whether IT vendors can be expected to present the ethical issues when they pitch their products to government buyers. Sales people are not generally trained to address difficult ethical issues while trying to make a sale; they’re trained to tell potential customers what the customers want to hear, Paller said.

The panel also addressed several questions from the audience, largely of government employees. One question was:

What’s wrong with the statement, ‘If someone has nothing to hide, why shouldn’t we be able to take their biometric data?’

Reeder answered:

I would submit to you that none of you would tolerate routine invasion of your homes and searching of your personal possessions by a police force because you had nothing to hide.

2 comments to Government IT must consider privacy, ethics

  • In what way, Gabriel, do you imagine taking biometric data is equivalent to entering your home and searching it? Biometric data is finite and specific, it is obtained in a specific way and it is taking for a clearly defined purpose. A house seach is open ended, unspecified and has no clearly defined purpose. I would not tolerate the routine invasion of my home. I would tolerate the gathering of my biometric data. Both are entirely consistent viewpoints because the two issues are dissimilar events.

    Perhaps the panel of experts were worried that, while taking biometric data, other data might be taken. Perhaps they were worried that biometric data may be used in ways that are not consistent with its original purpose. Those are specific concerns which they need to address. But if the so called experts are unable to articulate their concerns at a level higher than a lazy and unapplicable analogy, then they do the expression of your concerns (which I don’t share, by the way) a disservice.

    Less a thorn on the side than a bug on the windshield, I’d say.

  • Rich: the analogy makes perfect sense to me. I do not want my biometric data to be taken with any excuse whatsoever. It is not the stated purpose that bothers me but future use of the data that I will have no control over.

    In that sense, if I do not agree with my biometric data to be taken and am forced to do so, it is an invasion of my privacy and as such equals to invasion of my home or other private zone.

    You may not share my concerns as I do not share yours. The trouble is I am not forcing you to act on my concerns the way the proponents of ID cards are forcing me to behave according to their diktat. I haven’t heard one consistent argument, let alone a rational one from the side of those who are willing to be tagged…