2015-08-19

The Ethics Of Public Knowledge Of Your Ethics

From The Awl, on the AshleyMadison.com hack:
Such a scenario would present a number of new questions for many more internet users— questions the nature of which they’ve never really had to deal with. If the names and email addresses are available in a simple Google-like search, for example, will they search for their partners? Friends? Coworkers? Representatives? Family members? If so, why? If not, why not? Will you seek out the raw leak data after reading this post? Will news organizations, presented with user profiles associated with public figures, ask for comment? Treat each as news? Which ones? How? The last time people dealt with similar questions on a large scale was when troves of internal Sony documents, including emails, were leaked. Before that, it was when hundreds of private celebrity photos were stolen and released last year. That act was widely denounced, as were the millions of subsequent acts by the people who viewed the photos. But enough people looked at these photos to set traffic records for sites like Reddit. In any case, an incredible number of ethical questions are posed by this situation!
The first ethical question raised by the hack is easy: Is it ethical to steal data from a private company to make this kind of social statement? No. What The Awl manages to point out, though, is how difficult the remaining questions are.

I don't believe it's fair to say that absolutely every user at AshleyMadison.com was a bad person engaged in unethical activity. Some might be there with the full blessing and consent of their partner(s). Some might be seeking escape from an otherwise unescapable situation. Some victims of the hack may not have used their accounts for years. Some may have reformed, made amends, and moved on with their lives. There might be some other users engaged in neutrally ethical activity. While, "They're cheaters who deserve what they get!" is an attractive knee-jerk, a more patient level of consideration reveals that a lot of these folks - over 30 million people, in fact - are innocent bystanders who don't deserve to be stolen from.

For that matter, even assuming they were guilty of cheating, does that mean they deserve to be victims of identity theft? By what logic would such a conclusion make sense? From what I can tell, the only reasoning that supports that conclusion is, "They did something morally wrong and deserve to suffer for it." But should they suffer anything, just for a moral lapse in one area of their lives?

There are even more interesting ethical questions regarding how you, a casual surfer of the internet chooses to respond to the hack. If you voluntarily search the data dump for incriminating evidence against people you know - even people you love - are you doing something wrong? The answer seems to be, "No, if you are a victim of someone else's cheating; but yes if you're digging for dirt on the people in your life." The problem is, how will you know whether your search is justified until you actually engage in the search? Are you comfortable with the conclusion that you yourself are morally culpable if your search turns up empty, but justified otherwise?

What if we discover that a disproportionately large percentage of the AshleyMadison.com user population holds positions of power? What would you conclude about that sort of situation? Who might you blame for staffing your public service with moral failures? Will you vote against them in the next cycle?

But here's what really gets my motor cranking: 30 million people have been potentially "found out." There is a good chance that among them is someone you know, someone who you believe to be a fundamentally "good person," but who you now have evidence to the contrary. Your opinion of that person is bound to change, but this is because that person's morality has been made public. They never had any good reason to think they'd be caught doing what they were doing, and your opinion of them was positive. They were caught, and your opinion changed. So, your opinion is largely founded on whether or not someone is caught in the act.

How many of your actions would survive that level of public scrutiny?