Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

The Ethical Dilemma of BYOD

A recent study claims that “[b]ring-your-own-device strategies are the single most radical change to the economics and culture of client computing in a decade.”  As people increasingly bring their own (mostly mobile) devices into the workplace, and use them for both personal and professional activities, new challenges arise—for the employees as well as their employers.  In this brief video, Pat Gelsinger, the CEO of VMware, discusses some of the implications of BYOD for data security and personal privacy.  Can people enjoy the convenience of BYOD without compromising either the assets of their employers or their own personal privacy?  Gelsinger argues that this is a problem that can be addressed through a technical solution, and challenges tech companies to devise products and services that will protect both the corporations and the individuals who adopt the BYOD strategy.

Below, Brian Buckley, Lecturer in the Philosophy Department and Incoming Director of Pre-Law Advising at Santa Clara University, comments on some of the ethical questions raised by the video:

“Mr. Gelsinger’s discussion of mobile devices and privacy raises at least three ethical questions about balance in the use of such devices.  These questions are either implicit in or complementary to his assertion that this is a 'technology problem' that may be solved in part by firewalls, etc.    

The first question involves information protection: What is the optimal balance between (a) introducing mobile technologies into the workplace and (b) preserving the value corporations have in their proprietary data?  Companies innovate, do research, and invest in order to secure for themselves information that is profitable to their ongoing enterprise.  This connection between protection and incentive is thus essential to promoting corporate growth and advancing stakeholder interests.  After all, what company would invest corporate funds in research and development, etc., if the rewards of that investment were not secure?  And yet these rewards are put in jeopardy when certain devices are brought into a workplace without safeguards.  A balance therefore upholds here the very foundations of a business model that captures value, and it must be taken seriously.   

The second question involves employee privacy: What balance is optimal between (a) the introduction of mobile devices to the workplace and (b) the employees’ reasonable expectations of privacy?  An employee enters the workforce expecting the necessary inconveniences of steady employment—the commute, the hours, etc.  But it seems problematic to claim that part of those inconveniences might include an erosion of certain realms of privacy.  The newer devices, however, could thrust employees into the public domain without their consent, or otherwise capture their personal data.  This constitutes a breach of personal boundaries that is not part of the employment contract and is a serious offense to respect for persons.  The firewall that Mr. Gelsinger proposed would, however, work both ways—protecting both the intellectual property and assets of the corporation as well as the personal information of the employee.  However such a firewall is fashioned, a balance must be struck that never promotes or celebrates the use of mobile devices at the expense of employee protections.    

The third question, a broader one suggested by the video, involves the saturation of technology and its possible effect on character: What is the optimal balance between (a) the use of mobile data devices in employee life and (b) the increasing reliance of employers and employees on such devices?  Mr. Gelsinger worries about privacy matters and the proprietary issues, but it seems that another reasonable concern involves the expected overuse of mobile devices.  Employees may increasingly feel the need to incorporate the mobile data into their private life—to work on projects on the weekend, on vacation, etc.  Furthermore, the mobile quality of various applications, with their accompanying data, might incentivize employers to either expect or reward such behavior.  It is not hard to imagine the employer who is 'very sorry' to interrupt the vacation or who 'just this one time' wants the employee to give up her weekend, etc.  Mobile data technologies might encourage this.  I acknowledge that this also can be a good that allows for people to stay at home with a special needs child, etc.  But if character formation (both vices and virtues) is based on daily habits, it seems reasonable to worry about the extent mobile data devices may devalue relationships, professionalism, and communities and instead incentivize workaholics. “     


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