Violating Your Own Ethical Standards

In another followup to a post about the absence of professional ethics in startups and blogging, Casey Johnson at Ars Technica has written a great piece about Marius Milner, the Google engineer who “collected personal data from WiFi networks, including e-mail addresses and passwords, with the company’s Street View cars between May 2007 and May 2010.”  According to the FCC, Milner’s actions were legal.  But, of course, lots of immoral things are legal.

What’s interesting here is that parts of what Milner did clearly violated the ethical standards that were developing among the “wardriving” community he was a part of.  Wardrivers drive around with wi-fi tools and computers trying to find open wi-fi networks that can be used to connect to the internet.  The location of open networks that wardrivers find are then shared so that people can use them.

The wardriving community views the use of open wireless networks as a morally acceptable practice (although ISPs disagree).  But, they don’t accept as moral the collection of personal data from computers attached to these networks.  That goes from being basic use of infrastructure to invasion of privacy.

Importantly, Milner was well aware of these community standards.  He commented in a blog post in 2004 on a scholarly article about wardriving ethics, and claims to have expressed his reservations about collecting personal data while wardriving to his employer.  Yet, he ended up ignoring his own reservations to write the code that collected the data. As Johnson puts it:

Milner’s prior awareness of the privacy and legal issues in lifting data from open WiFi networks implicates him, in one sense: he created tools to do something that was, at best, an ethically gray area for the community out of which he came.

Even if burgeoning professions develop codes of ethics, is no mechanism for enforcement, nor any incentive for upholding them.

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