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Must an IT Professional Do Police Work?

DILEMMA:

I am an IT professional who feels “caught in the middle.” When I install software on someone’s computer, I sometimes find things on the computer that shouldn’t be there. Sometimes it is unlicensed software, sometimes pornography. As an IT organization, we are under a great deal of pressure to keep things running and make the system work, and I don’t think it is part of my job to be a “police officer” for the organization. I wonder about what would happen to me if I blow the whistle. Who would look out for my interests? Even if I report it, should it be to my IT manager, or should it be to the department manager where I am doing the installation? What is the ethics of this situation?

Caught in the Middle

RESPONSE:

Dear Caught,

You do find yourself in a tricky situation. I assume that you probably also come across illegally downloaded media files. The bigger-picture ethical concern is theft of resources (software) and perhaps theft of time/ wages (pornography).

I would be very surprised if your organization does not already have guidelines in place. If this is the case, then enforcement is the key issue. I think you would be well served by speaking first with your IT manager, and then going higher in the organization if necessary in order to press for enforcement with respect to computer usage and specific guidelines and duties for IT staff with respect to reporting what they see.

Organizations that possess illegal copies of software are liable for huge potential fines as there are now several websites that solicit reporting of such software. Moreover, some enforcement organizations are paying rewards to those who report illegal software (attention disgruntled employees or ex-employees!) Given this huge vulnerability, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get the attention of senior management on this issue.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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