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If knowledge is power, then the vast amounts of information now available to both governments and private businesses represent a level of power that has probably never existed before. When a company has access to personal information about a client or employee, the responsibility to use that information ethically requires careful consideration.
Use of Information
In the past, companies considering a new employee had access to a relatively limited amount of information such as references from past employers. Now, many companies also perform a criminal background check or a credit check on the assumption that an employee with a record of poor decision-making in one area of life isn't worth the risk. This assumption may or may not be true. A person with many excellent traits could have bad credit due to medical bills or a criminal record due to a single poor decision. A company that relies on this type of information could miss out on an excellent candidate and possibly even run into trouble with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if the practice reduces minority hiring.
Many companies monitor employee computer use and some also monitor social media to see what employees are saying and doing on their own time. If an IT manager discovers employee activity that the company would not approve of, it could cost the employee a job or promotion. While most people would agree that employees should not be surfing the Internet or accessing inappropriate websites on company time, many would also think that the employee's behavior outside of work is none of the employer's business unless it's particularly egregious. If an IT manager monitoring social media discovers an employee has extreme political views or unhealthy behaviors such as binge drinking, she would have to decide whether to raise the issue with management or treat it as the employee's personal business.
Medical ethics in the past was largely based on the Hippocratic Oath, the principle of doing no harm. Concerns with medical record confidentiality has led to a major shift, as medical ethics now gives more weight to the principle of autonomy or self-determination. For instance, a health care organization may have information indicating that a patient has a contagious and potentially fatal disease, yet may not be permitted to share that information without the patient's permission. An employer may know that an employee has an illness, but may not share that information with the employee's co-workers even to ask them to be understanding or supportive. Ethical guidelines on this topic are usually clear and comprehensive, but professionals who have access to medical information can still face personal dilemmas when confidentiality rules forbid them from sharing information.
Mass Surveillance and Censorship
Mass surveillance and censorship become ethical issues for companies when they are asked to cooperate with government agencies seeking to gather or restrict information. For example, Google shared lists of search terms that could trigger censorship of search results for its customers in China, according to a 2012 article in "Ethics Newsline." If a government agency contacts a company and asks for its client records or employee information without a warrant, the company faces the difficult choice of compromising client or employee privacy by cooperating or facing additional pressure for refusing to cooperate.
Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.
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