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Business Ethics in the News
PRISM: Should Firms Participate in Government Data Programs?
Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013
Silicon Valley companies, such as Google, Apple, and Facebook, are under tremendous pressure for their participation in the NSA’s PRISM program. The Washington Post’s news breaking article on PRISM claimed that the NSA and FBI had direct and unfettered access to the servers of nine major Internet companies: some have now denied this. To salvage users trust, a number of these companies are petitioning the Attorney General for to make public the types of requests they have received from the NSA as well as the percentage of those requests that they facilitate. The hope of the disclosure is to dispel the public perception that the NSA has direct access to company servers, and instead portray their participation as both legal and limited. Transparency of the nature of their involvement in PRISM is a positive first step to regaining user trust, but these companies still find themselves in a double bind between assisting matters of national security and respecting their users’ privacy. Going forward, should companies be participating in these national security programs, and to what extent must users be informed?
Kirk: We are badly in need of a new national debate over what the Patriot Act has authorized. Data on our phone calls, email, shopping, travels, and web surfing sits in the servers of private companies. The key questions are what data can companies keep, how much aggregation of data from different sources will be permitted (data mining, big data), and when will the government be allowed to look at and “mine” the data. Threats to individual privacy are many. The impacts of losing our privacy are not well understood. For now as much “transparency” as possible, and some resistance to overbroad government requests, constitute a good ethical stance, in my view.
Patrick: I agree with Kirk, as much transparency as possible is the first step. Moving forward, there are a number of things that companies should be doing to preempt future ethical dilemmas between national security and user privacy. First, technology firms should form a coalition to establish a unified stance on this issue. That way, individual firms are not “bullied” by government agencies into sharing user data, and a baseline for future instances will be in place. This baseline will allow users to have a better understanding of the way their data will be used, and will place responsibility on individual firms for making known their policies through user agreements.