Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age

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Management Information Systems Quarterly
Volume 10, Number 1, March, 1986

The copyright for this document is owned by the Management Information Systems Quarterly. The article may not be printed out or sold through any service without permission of the Management Information Systems Quarterly

[pic]Issues & Opinons

Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age

by Richard O. Mason

Today in western societies more people are employed collecting, handling and distributing information than in any other occupation. Millions of computers inhabit the earth and many millions of miles of optical fiber, wire and air waves link people, their computers and the vast array of information handling devices together. Our society is truly an information society, our time an information age. The question before us now is whether the kind of society being created is the one we want. It is a question that should especially concern those of us in the MIS community for we are in the forefront of creating this new society.

There are many unique challenges we face in this age of information. They stem from the nature of information itself. Information is the means through which the minds expands and increases its capacity to achieve its goals, often as the result of an input from another mind. Thus, information forms the intellectual capital from which human beings craft their lives and secure dignity.

However, the building of intellectual capital is vulnerable in many ways. For example, people's intellectual capital is impaired whenever they lose their personal information without being compensated for it, when they are precluded access to information which is of value to them, when they have revealed information they hold intimate, or when they find out that the information upon which their living depends is in error. The social contract among people in the information age must deal with these threats to human dignity. The ethical issues involved are many and varied, however, it is helpful to focus on just four. These may be summarized by means of an acronym -- PAPA.

Privacy: What information about one's self or one's associations must a person reveal to others, under what conditions and with what safeguards? What things can people keep to themselves and not be forced to reveal to others?

Accuracy: Who is responsible for the authenticity, fidelity and accuracy of information? Similarly, who is to be held accountable for errors in information and how is the injured party to be made whole?

Property: Who owns information? What are the just and fair prices for its exchange? Who owns the channels, especially the airways, through which information is transmitted? How should access to this scarce resource be allocated?

Accessibility: What information does a person or an organization have a right or a privilege to obtain, under what conditions and with what safeguards?

Privacy

What information should one be required to divulge about one's self to others? Under what conditions? What information should one be able to keep strictly to one's self? These are among the questions that a concern for privacy raises. Today more than ever cautious citizens must be asking these questions.

Two forces threaten our privacy. One is the growth of information technology, with its enhanced capacity for surveillance, communication, computation, storage, and retrieval. A second, and more insidious threat, is the increased value of information in decision-making. Information is increasingly valuable to policy makers; they covet it even if acquiring it invades another's privacy.

A case in point is the situation that occurred a few years ago in Florida. The Florida legislature believed that the state's building codes might be too stringent and that, as a result, the taxpayers were burdened by paying for buildings which were underutilized. Several studies were commissioned. In one study...
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