Ethical Issues in Electronic Information Systems

These materials were developed by Margaret Lynch, Department of Geography, University of Texas at Austin, 1994.  These materials may be used for study, research, and education in not-for-profit applications.  If you link to or cite these materials, please credit the author, Margaret Lynch, The Geographer's Craft Project.  These materials may not be copied to or issued from another Web server without the author's express permission.  Copyright 2000-2015. All commercial rights are reserved.  If you have comments or suggestions, please contact the author or Ken Foote at

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1. Introduction

A New Technology Creates New Ethical Dilemmas

New computer technologies for gathering, storing, manipulating, and communicating data are revolutionizing the use and spread of information. Along the way, they are also creating ethical dilemmas. The speed and efficiency of electronic information systems, which include local and global networks, databases, and programs for processing information, force people to confront entirely new rights and responsibilities in their use of information and to reconsider standards of conduct shaped before the advent of computers.

The Importance of Ethics in Information Systems

Information is a source of power and, increasingly, the key to prosperity among those with access to it. Consequently, developments in information systems also involve social and political relationships-- and so make ethical considerations in how information is used all the more important. Electronic systems now reach into all levels of government, into the workplace, and into private lives to such an extent that even people without access to these systems are affected in significant ways by them. New ethical and legal decisions are necessary to balance the needs and rights of everyone.

Ethics Fill the Gap as Legal Decisions Lag Behind Technology

As in other new technological arenas, legal decisions lag behind technical developments. Ethics fill the gap as people negotiate how use of electronic information should proceed. The following notes define the broad ethical issues now being negotiated. Since laws deciding some aspects of these issues have been made, these notes should be read in conjunction with Legal Issues in Electronic Information Systems.

Ethical Issues Specific to Electronic Information Systems

Ethics include moral choices made by individuals in relation to the rest of the community, standards of acceptable behavior, and rules governing members of a profession. The broad issues relating to electronic information systems include control of and access to information, privacy and misuse of data, and international considerations. All of these extend to electronic networks, electronic databases, and, more specifically, to geographic information systems. Specific problems within each of the three areas, however, require slightly different kinds of ethical decisions. Networks, electronic information systems in general, and geographic information systems in particular are discussed separately below.

2. Electronic Networks

Introduction: A Network Defined

Any set of computers able to communicate with one another constitutes a network. Some networks are contained within institutions or companies, enabling people within a single organization to communicate electronically. Many of these small systems are also hooked into other organizations' computers. Thousands of such networks collectively form the Internet. Much of the following discussion has been formed with the Internet in mind, but the issues raised may be applied to smaller networks as well.

Networks as Sources of Power

Electronic networks were first established as a reliable means of communication and as a means for exchanging information efficiently, but they have become much more. Large networks represent new sources of power. In order to create reliability and efficiency in communication, networks were structured so that the movement of information would not depend on --and could not be controlled by--another person or computer. As a result, the larger networks have become anarchic. Ordinary people with relatively few resources can communicate ideas and information, however uncommon, unpopular, or politically sensitive those ideas or information may be, to millions of other people around the world. No government, no hierarchical system exerting either repressive or benign influence, not even the simple constraints of time and money, will have quite the same control they once had over the flow of information as long as the networks operate as they now do. For some people, the networks therefore contain exciting possibilities; for others they have become a threatening, even subversive, new presence.

Networks as Social Places

Networks have also become social places, where people discover friendships, discuss issues, find others who share unusual interests, argue, form groups, commiserate, proselytize, play games, and fall in love. These activities have brought comparisons with more traditional communities, villages, or places. One essayist, Ray Oldenburg, has referred to the networks as a new sort of "Third Place," where people gather for conviviality, apart from home and work (First and Second Places). He theorizes that the networks may replace opportunities for social interaction lost in the modern world of suburbs, express highways, and shopping malls. Other writers are more cautious and when talking about the sociability of the networks use qualified terms : virtual communities or virtual villages, for instance. Such terms acknowledge the differences inherent in the kinds of interactions that take place over computer networks. A lack of face-to-face contact, for instance, has a leveling effect. Race, class, gender, and physical appearance are hidden, allowing interaction that is relatively free from all the subtle biases that usually accompany more direct human relations. On the other hand, this virtual anonymity allows interaction without any sort of commitment; the sense of shared responsibility that people must have in a real community does not necessarily exist on the Internet.

New Funding Sources Mean New Ethical Issues

Nonetheless, the networks have attracted loyal participants who recognize the value of what has been created in this new form of human interaction and who put a great deal of thought into the future character and uses of the networks. Electronic networks are becoming more common and their influence more pervasive but they are also changing under the influence of people and institutions who are relatively new to the networks. Funding, once almost exclusively public, now comes increasingly from private, or commercial, sources, and this change in funding will also mean changes in ideas about the proper uses of the networks and the nature of interaction on them. Recognition of the power and potential of electronic networks has created some hotly contested issues. These range from relatively simple questions of proper behavior and use within them to more important questions of political power, control of communications, equality of access, and privacy.

On the Internet,several essays on the nature and possibilities of the networks have appeared. Here are just a few:

3. Acceptable Behavior on the Networks: New Standards of Conduct

Cultural norms and values shape a society's definition of acceptable behavior. On-line standards of conduct are founded on the norms of the society in which a network is set, but these broader norms and values are often challenged by the character of human interaction in electronic networks. Networks stretch across societies that have different values and traditions. The computers that form them have capacities that allow people to do things they could not do before--and to do so with anonymity. Finally, the networks, new as they are, have their own social history, in which somewhat different norms have been formed. The people who have so far populated the virtual community have tended to value individuality, free expression, free exchange of information, anarchy and nonconformity more than other groups. Acceptable behavior on the networks, therefore, has slightly different standards. These may change as many more people join the networks. But, so far, the less conventional on-line standards of conduct have been jealously guarded by long-time network users. These users generally are people who have strong feelings about the shape of life on their various networks and about what shape it will take in the future. New users of the Internet and of various smaller networks should be aware that they are entering an unconventional social community.

Issues of acceptable behavior in the networks include simple standards of civility to questions of rights and responsibilities in distributing information that have not yet been clarified in law.

3.1 Netiquette

How to Behave on the Networks: Remember Where You Are

Netiquette, or on-line civility, is a matter of common sense and of remembering the context of behavior. The Internet's emphasis on free expression, for instance, has meant that what might be considered rude elsewhere will often be tolerated on various networks in order to protect the principles of individual expression. Groups discuss every conceivable subject, obscenities flow on some parts of the Internet, pornography flourishes. Some people make a game of verbally hassling one another. Rather than squashing individuality with broad regulations, system administrators have so far tended to referee or negotiate specific situations in which conflicts occur. However, activities that would be questionable off the networks should be approached with some judgment and kept to the parts of the networks (in bulletin boards established for a specific purpose, for instance) where those who would be offended can avoid them.

Some Activities That Will Offend

Specific activities that do offend most network users usually occur when the capacities of computers for allowing rapid, efficient communication and for giving access to other people's systems are misused. So, for instance, sending a rambling message to everyone with an e-mail address at the local state university is not considered appropriate even though computers make sending such a message relatively effortless. Unsolicited advertising is especially resented and will get an equally unsolicited reaction. In one case, a law firm's efforts to advertise over the Usenet prompted one young man in Norway to launch a cancelbot, a message that automatically destroyed the firm's transmissions every time it sent out an advertisement. He was applauded by other Usenet participants, although his actions did raise concerns about wider use of arbitrary censorship.

Some simple guidelines to on-line civil behavior follow:

Some sources on netiquette:

3.2 Acceptable Use Policies

Different Networks Have Different Policies

The networks that collectively form the Internet have different purposes, and they allow different kinds of traffic to pass through them. People who communicate across various networks must learn what they are allowed to do on each. Networks established for research and education, for instance, forbid most commercial activities. These restrictions now exist largely because research and education networks are supported with public funds. In the future, however, more and more of the Internet will be supported by private money. Commercial uses will become a more prominent feature of the Internet. Many researchers who now use the Internet worry about the change from public to private support. They see commercial activities, especially advertising, as intrusions on the time and attention of people at work. The level of hostility toward such activities runs high, so how commercial and research or education uses will mix is not yet clear even as public funding becomes uncertain.

Written Policies Outline Permissions and Restrictions

Various networks have produced written statements outlining what sort of traffic they permit. Many simply state the purpose of the network in question and restrict users to that purpose. Most explicitly forbid disruptive, frivolous, illegal, and obscene communications, along with any form of harassment. Others simply try to balance free exchange of information, in the spirit of the Internet, with concern about unfair uses of what they have so freely provided.

3.3 Exporting Through the Networks

Export Restrictions Apply But Clear Guidelines Are Lacking

Electronic files can be sent around the world in seconds and without physical restriction, which might lead people to think that other restrictions on them do not exist. Yet export regulations from the U.S. Department of Commerce do apply in electronic networks. To make matters more complex, export restrictions vary for different destination countries. As a rule, the people transferring files over networks are responsible for knowing and applying legal restrictions. Unfortunately, people sending files across national borders often are left without clear legal guidelines for specific situations because export law has not kept pace with the movement of information across electronic networks. . Networks which allow people from remote locations to log-in and use information or computer systems stored on computers within the U.S. have created even more complex problems, and have left network operators with little clear guidance. There are, however, some general principles to follow.

Some General Principles to Follow

For the most part, information commonly and freely available from U.S. periodicals, books, conferences, libraries, or university courses falls under general license, which means it may be transferred to other countries without further permission. What is restricted in electronic information, which may include data, software, machine readable code, encryption code, and so on, is more difficult to define. The following examples, though hardly comprehensive, illustrate some of the difficulties encountered when export laws are applied to electronic networks.

Example: Encryption codes, which are used to translate data into code that cannot be read without a key, are restricted. The U.S. government claims that such codes must be controlled for reasons of national security. Encryption codes are treated as munitions under export law and therefore require special export permission from the Department of State. This policy draws vociferous criticism from people who claim that the government is unfairly attempting to control access to and privacy of communications.

In one case, the government ruled that a source code for an encryption device already published in a book--a book not restricted from export--could not be distributed across national borders through a computer network because the code in digital format represented a different form of information. The source code in the new format was partitioned into files which, the government stated, could be "compiled into an executable subroutine."

Example: Access to hardware through a network may be restricted. If certain computer hardware may not be exported physically from the U.S., then access to that hardware may not be given to people working from countries to which export is forbidden.

When BITNET in 1990 decided to link into the Soviet Union, a letter from the U.S. Office of Technology and Policy Analysis reminded BITNET's operators that they could not allow open, international access to certain types of systems. The same letter pointed out that exporting certain kinds of software by file transfer over the network would require special licenses. A second letter informed the BITNET operators of their responsibility to maintain a vaguely defined "level of care" in making sure that the network's members were not exporting materials illegally while using BITNET.

3.4 Copyrights

Existing Law is Challenged by Electronic Information Systems

The fluidity of information on the networks has caused some confusion about how copyrights and intellectual property rights apply to electronic files. In the relatively small world of the original network users, an emphasis on free exchange of information and a common understanding of intellectual property allayed most potential conflicts over use of information. Now, as the networks grow larger and attract a broader range of people, some clarification of how electronic files may be used is becoming necessary. The ease with which electronic files can be distributed and the nature of some electronic information create problems within existing copyright law: either the law does not address the peculiarities of electronic information or the law is too easily subverted by the ease with which files can be copied and transferred. Similar problems have arisen with photocopy machines, VCRs, and tape recorders. To make matters more complex, other countries may have different copyright laws, so information made available globally through a network may not have the same protections in other places.

Existing U.S. Copyright Law Provides Some Guidance

While the law does not always provide clear guidelines to rights and responsibilities even within the U.S., a familiarity with basic existing copyright principles should keep most network users on ethical grounds.

Who is Responsible for Copyright Protection?: Carriers vs. Providers

Any work with a copyright, therefore, should not be distributed or reproduced on networks without permission of the author. This application of copyright law is fairly straightforward, but the question now becomes, who is responsible for enforcing copyright protection on the networks? The federal High Performance Computing Act of 1991 holds the National Research and Education Network (NREN) responsible for protecting the copyrights of materials distributed on that network. But NREN administrators point out that the requirement is unenforceable. The network does not provide information, rather it provides links between networks and routes or relays information packets. The people at NREN propose instead that their role as carrier and the role of information services should be separated in the law, with responsibility for copyright protections going to the information services. They suggest that technical means, such as digital markers identifying the holder of a file copy and subscription fees to information services, be used to regulate the distribution and use of materials with copyrights.

How is Work Created on a Network Protected?

The principles of copyright laws apply easily to work not created in an electronic file. But what about "original work" that is created within a network? The law applies in sometimes surprising ways, and users should think about copyrights before distributing or reproducing work created by another person. For instance:


E-mail is protected by copyright. Information received in e-mail may be discussed, but the specific contents of e-mail have copyright protection.

Usenet Postings

Usenet postings may also be protected. These may be read and discussed by however many people have access to the Usenet, but they cannot be reproduced and distributed in any way that may diminish the author's ability to profit from the original work--however farfetched such profit may seem. One author has brought up an interesting question concerning network postings. John Coate asks, "does the fact that anything you say in an on-line system can be downloaded and printed out by anyone who happens to read it create a different class of reproduction than quoting without permission from a commercial publication? If a journalist quotes something from an on-line system and they don't obtain permission, did they steal it, or did they overhear it in a conversation?" Coate's answer is that whatever seems like "fair use" probably is, but he also points out that actual control of such use is impossible and that good manners are "critically important."

Computer Programs

Computer programs, which might appear to be ideas, procedures, systems, or devices, may be registered as "literary works" under the law, and therefore receive copyright protection.

For further information on copyright laws, see the sources for this discussion:

4. Access to Electronic Networks

Why is Access Important?

One of the major issues in electronic networks is the question of access: who will have access to the networks, and what kinds of information will be accessible. These questions are important because networks offer tremendous economic, political, and even social advantages to people who have access to them. As the networks become a larger presence in society, conflicts may arise between information "haves" and "have-nots." Conceivably, network communication could create greater equality by offering common access to all resources for all citizens. Already, in a few places scattered around the country, experiments with "freenets," network connections established through local libraries or other municipal or local organizations specifically for people who otherwise would have no way to use the networks, have shown that those people will, for instance, participate more in local government issues. They therefore have a greater voice in whatever happens with local government. Conversely, if access is not evenly distributed, it threatens to perpetuate or deepen existing divides between the poor, who cannot afford expensive computer systems, and the better-off.

Three key aspects of the issue are in debate.

What principle will guide access?
Few people disagree that access to the networks also provides access to power. People disagree, however, on the principles that should guide network access. Some think that the private market now growing up around the networks can respond to the issue, because with more and more people buying computers and joining network services prices will drop and become adequately affordable to the majority of people. Others think that the access issue is too important to be left solely to the market. They seek guarantees of universal service already applied to the telephone and postal systems. Their approach raises difficult issues of public costs and subsidies.
How will the networks be structured?
The present infrastructures of cable and telephone services offer two very different types of networks. Cable lines are generally designed for one-way communication--to the customer. In these systems, the companies retain control over "tree and branch" networks, allowing them control over the flow and content of information. Telephone lines, however, operate on an open, switch system in which anyone within the system can send and receive information to and from anyone else, much like the present operation of the Internet. Everyone on the network could produce information, telecasts, sound recordings, etc., at home or at work; people would have an infinite choice of data or programs to receive; no single company could control the flow and content on the information highway. Some people see exciting new cultural, political, and entrepreneurial possibilities in such an open system. Others see its anarchic qualities as dangerous and even subversive.
What will be allowed on the networks?
Questions of free speech and community standards of decency on the Internet are difficult to resolve even now in the United States. At present, under laws defined without computer networks in mind, local communities may define what is or is not obscene, and therefore not tolerated, within their geographic borders. The networks, however, have no such borders; so who defines obscenity on them has become a divisive issue. The problems will become still greater as network communication grows and crosses additional intranational, as well as international, boundaries--and cultural divides. Many types of information and communication taken for granted in some cultures and places are deeply offensive in others. This is not just a question of pornography, one of the major issues within the United States, but of conflicts over deeply held religious, political, and cultural values relating to many different aspects of day-to-day life.
Communities without borders: Whose standards apply?
In the United States, conflicts have already arisen with respect to community standards of decency and the Internet. In one case, a couple living in California was charged with indency in Memphis for making available on the Internet pictures of bestiality, even though the images were posted on a closed bulletin board and no complaints were filed in the California community where the couple lived. As of January 1995, the couple face a jail sentence. Further cases are likely to arise now that individuals have great freedom both to publish and to distribute across state and community boundaries.
International issues
In the international arena, issues of community standards will remain sensitive. The problem may, in some countries, be a prime consideration in how the Internet is allowed to grow. Some nations have far different attitudes toward political debate and the expression of political dissent. Among world religions, tremendous differences exist in attitudes toward blasphemy, heresy, and family values. Finally, no international consensus exists on issues of human sexuality, obscenity, reproduction, and personal values. The free expression so valued by long-term network users thus conflicts directly with another valued feature of the Internet--its international reach and potential for rich cross-cultural exchanges. How the issue will be resolved will affect the fundamental nature of the Internet in the future.

5. Privacy and Electronic Networks

A Counterpoint to Open Access: What Others Know About You

Countering questions of rights to access are questions of privacy. The degree of control that people have over what other people can find out and distribute about them has dropped markedly with the growth of electronic databases and network communications. The amount and kinds of personal information available as a result of both technologies is startling: financial, medical, educational and employment histories; driving records, insurance records, buying habits, hobbies, pets, family and associates, travels, phone usage--where and when, income, marital status, criminal records, address changes, and so on, can all be accessed through electronic networks. In 1986, the Electronics Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) passed by Congress gave some protection from electronic violations of privacy, but a great deal of room for abuse persists. Individuals, companies, and the government have all pushed existing barriers to what they can know about other people, even at times bringing into question the protections of the American Bill of Rights. New laws may eventually add some protection, but are not the only answer. Some people, such as Curtis Karnow, point out that laws often do not fit the fast-moving cyberspace culture, and often cannot be enforced since infringements may not be detectable or even stoppable. People like Karnow suggest instead that evolving social norms and technological shields will offer better protection as the networks grow and become more powerful.

Challenges to Privacy by Individuals.
Two kinds of individuals have access to personal information that might be kept in a networked computer: hackers, those with no right to a system on which personal files might be held, and system operators, who have rights to be on a system but not necessarily to read personal files. System operators have access to root directories and can, for instance, read everything on private e-mail accounts (although they may not do so since the ECPA was passed). They might also hold backup tapes of entire root directories containing personal files that were thought to be safely deleted. Hackers and system operators do not necessarily pose a threat to privacy rights that is any greater than risks run with a curious postman or telephone operator. However, they can get access to personal information with a much smaller risk of detection, which makes the enforcement of privacy rights much more difficult.
Challenges to Privacy by Companies: Selling Information.
Because selling information is so lucrative, and so much is available through the networks, companies have begun to profit from data they already hold for their own purposes. For instance, companies with 800 or 900 numbers can legally gather the names, billing addresses, and phone numbers of all their callers. This information can be bought and sold freely, though if companies become too flagrant about it people may simply stop using their services. The same is true for on-line services such as Prodigy, which know not only their members' social security and credit card numbers, but may also hold entire profiles on people, including what bulletin boards they join--discussion groups for cancer survivors, for instance, which might be a danger for a job applicant. Some companies also gather data merely for the purpose of selling it. Few protections against these practices have been established, though some have been proposed in Congress. People need to be aware of exactly what they are revealing and to whom when giving out information, however inadvertently.
Challenges to Privacy by Companies: Monitoring Employees
Under the rules of the ECPA, companies may also electronically monitor their employees. Employers can tap e-mail and other network communications, they can look through employee electronic files, and eavesdrop on phone conversations. Employees who do repetitive tasks on computers can be monitored for speed and accuracy. These practices may protect companies from employee dishonesty, but they can also create extremely stressful working conditions.

Challenges to Privacy by Government: Access to Databases

Federal and state agencies hold and verify enormous amounts of information about individuals, which they share with one another and with the private sector. A 1989 General Accounting Office report found that over 2000 federal agencies maintain databases of various kinds of personal information. Much of this data is covered by privacy laws in theory, but is still shared in practice.
Challenges to Privacy by Government: Search and Seizure Laws
In addition to not always being careful about the information it keeps and distributes, the government has been testing some traditional rights which offer some specific forms of privacy protection. The Fourth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution guarantees protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Yet the ECPA allows the FBI to seize entire computer systems in order to comb through files. The FBI must have a search warrant, but only if the information they seek is less than six months old. If the information has been on a system for more than six months, only a subpoena is needed. This gives federal authorities theoretical access to tremendous amounts of personal files, which happen to be held on a suspect computer system.

6. Electronic Databases

Electronic Format Changes the Way Information is Used

Electronic databases cost a great deal of money to establish: they must be designed carefully to get the best use possible out of raw data, the necessary computer equipment must be acquired, reams of information once held only in paper format must be entered into the database, people must be trained in how to enter and use information in digital formats. But once electronic databases are created they change the way that information is used. More information, and in seemingly infinite combinations, can be stored with less effort, time, and money. Changes or additions to the existing database become relatively simple; information can be retrieved and manipulated with breathtaking speed and ease. As a consequence, information in electronic databases has become more valuable and has been assigned new uses. Holders of databases become tempted to sell them, causing conflicts with privacy rights. Information, for example from the records of federal agencies, becomes more in demand, creating further conflicts with both privacy rights and with the mandated functions of agencies who become overwhelmed by demands for access to their publicly-owned databases. Some of the general problems encountered with electronic databases are covered below.

6.1 Data Mosaics

One of the most powerful features of electronic databases lies in their ability to link together enormous quantities and types of information. Using, for instance, social security numbers, or any other unique anchor for information, a database creator can take bits of information from various sources and build up a detailed profile on specific people or objects, as well as on thousands of others at the same time. The information in the database does not have to be stored in a single place, but can be called up from other sources held on other computers, as long as the information is contained in a compatible format. The result is often referred to as a data mosaic. These mosaics can be arranged and rearranged for thousands of different uses. They can be shared at relatively little cost by a number of different agencies, each perhaps having to store and manage only a part of the whole mosaic. They eliminate the thousands of hours of tedious and expensive indexing and arranging once required for information held on paper. They do so, however, at some cost since such mosaics can also lead to misuse of information.

6.2 Inadvertent Consequences of Data Sharing

The consequences of sharing data and creating mosaics can be fairly complex. Many problems are simply logistical. A database manager may have to balance required security of a data set with providing access to it. Information systems may need to be designed carefully in order to prevent inappropriate access to all or part of a data set and still allow a way to benefit from sharing information. However, some more basic problems with how information is handled also arise with storing and manipulating information in digital formats. Two are discussed here to illustrate the range of problems created along with electronic databases.
Propagation of Errors
Errors can make their way into a database in any number of ways, and in an instant can create endless complications in someone's life. Say, for instance, a data entry clerk makes a mistake in entering an individual's credit rating. If the individual discovers the error upon being told his or her credit is bad after applying for a bank loan, the error might be fixed easily at the agency that created the error (if the mistake is proven). But what if such a mistake has been passed to other holders of financial or personal information? Who is responsible for tracking down every agency that might have acquired the error along with masses of other information? Individuals, at the moment, have no way to access, check, and correct discrepancies as they appear. Errors may be passed far beyond the site where they first occur and be almost impossible to correct. In a data mosaic, such an error might even be propagated further. Individuals with bad credit ratings might be thrown together into a related category, and the reason for being placed in this new category within a new database might then be obscured. The original error would then be compounded, and becomes even more difficult to correct. Who is responsible? Who should be? Questions like this are still open to debate.
Propensity Profiles
Database creators often focus their efforts on finding people or objects with sets of characteristics which they think suggest something else about the people or objects thus profiled. For instance, the marketing specialist for the manufacturer of a specific car can target certain people because they possess a set of characteristics that together give them the appearance of becoming likely buyers: people who live within certain zip code areas, who now own a similar car that is six years old, who have no more than two children, and so forth. Such practices have become a familiar feature of American life, but while becoming the target of a marketing scheme can be annoying or even slightly disturbing, it is relatively innocuous. Such profiles, however, also have been put to less innocent uses. Police have used propensity profiles to target people as possible suspects because they possess certain characteristics, characteristics which in themselves do not indicate criminal activity. Some police departments, for instance, have used utility records to ferret out home-based drug labs. People who use unusual amounts of water and electricity became the objects of police attention. Imagine, in such a scenario, what might happen to the honest citizen in a cold, northern state who also lives on the wrong side of the tracks and has a passion for rare tropical plants. Propensity profiles may have led to the discovery of drug labs, but they have also opened the way to violating basic and Constitutional rights for reasons that seem logical but which have been conjured out of substitute information.

7. Geographic Information Systems

GIS Also Create New Sets of Data

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used to create data mosaics and so may share some of the potential problems of other database systems. But GIS also have specific capabilities and characteristics which come with their own ethical dilemmas. As well as their database functions and mapping features, GIS can perform spatial analysis and so create entirely new sets of data. The data gathered and created by public agencies have become increasingly valuable and attractive to a wide range of people and businesses. Because GIS are often operated by local, state, and federal agencies--organizations with the resources to run such costly systems--conflicts have arisen over rights to access. Three types of existing conflicts are outlined below. The first provides the general terms of the majority of conflicts over access; the last two examples point out more specialized cases of conflicting interests.

7.1 Conflicting Responsibilities: Serve and Protect

GIS Information is Often Public Information and Agencies Like to Share Costs

GIS are used extensively by local, state, and federal agencies. Often government agencies share a Geographic Information System in order to also share costs, to prevent redundancies in storing information, and to make the system overall more useful. These agencies must find a balance between effectively sharing information and preserving the integrity of any private records they hold.

Access to Public Information vs. Privacy

This required balance between effective access and preservation of privacy has become an even greater problem when the demands of private citizens or companies enter the equation. Government agencies are publicly owned, and they are required by law to give open access to the information they hold. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) mandates public access in order to ensure accountability and prevent corruption. While it makes some allowances for preservation of privacy and for national security, the FOIA, along with the Open Records acts of the various states, contains a series of rules which prevent agencies from creating obstacles to access. The ability to preserve privacy of citizens, and of companies who have some involvement with governmental agencies, becomes increasingly difficult as the ability to manipulate and store information grows. Complicating the picture is the ability of systems like GIS to create entirely new data out of old information, which may then indirectly reveal information that is supposed to be private.

Access to Public Information vs. New Demands on Public Agencies

The GIS operated by governmental agencies, meanwhile, have become so powerful and the information they produce so valuable that ever greater demands are made for the information they hold. The intent of the FOIA and Open Records acts was specifically to ensure governmental accountability; but the nature and volume of demands for access to public records held in public Geographic Information Systems as well as other powerful electronic formats, is creating a burden on public agencies for purposes of private profit. People or corporations who find information held by public agencies economically valuable will demand access based on Open Records or FOIA statutes. At the same time, not all citizens have the means or training to use digital formats, which may create obstacles to their access. And to make matters even more complex, some private companies make their living from "value-added" information, from manipulating, arranging, or analyzing data in such a way that it becomes more valuable for specific kinds of information users. These companies find dissemination of value-added information by publicly-funded agencies to be unfair and in conflict with their private interests. The inability of laws like the FOIA, which were created before the advent of intangible computer records, to cope with electronic information has thus created a myriad of problems, even as computers have become essential new tools. Some of the problems already encountered by federal, state and local agencies are outlined below:

What's a public record? What are agencies required to provide?

Agencies can no longer be sure what must be made accessible: the boundary between what is and is not a record is no longer clear. If public information in digital format can only be read with specific software, must the software be provided along with the record? What happens if an agency uses proprietary software to store and analyze public records?

What's a reasonable search?

The FOIA states that agencies must only make "reasonable" searches for requested information, in order to prevent burdensome requests; but what is a reasonable search? The definition of reasonable becomes broader with the efficiencies of electronic information, but by how much? The answer must balance traditional rights to access with the burden that would be placed on public agencies should the definition of "reasonable" be made too broad.

May user fees be charged?

How should agencies balance their traditional mandates with meeting the requirements of the FOIA and Open Records acts? Electronic searching for requested information under FOIA rules raises new staffing and budgetary problems. Staff must be trained in computer skills, for instance, or an agency with particularly valuable information may find itself overwhelmed with requests for public information. User fees are generally considered an obstacle to access; so where do agencies draw the line on providing information? Some agencies may simply stop creating particularly useful information systems in order to avoid the problem, and so concentrate on their own mandates.

Must agencies provide records on paper or in digital format?

Some people cannot use information in digital formats; some records have no practical use when provided on paper--too much data is needed to be handled on anything but a computer, for instance. How can the government legislate which records must be provided in which format? As with all of the conflicts listed above, government agencies must find ways to preserve traditional rights and to maintain traditional responsibilities as new technologies create fundamental differences in how information is treated.

7.2 International Data: Taking and Sharing

American satellites orbit the earth, scanning for various kinds of data, which can then be used in a GIS. Analysis of resulting data tells researchers a great deal about, for instance, natural resources located in other countries. Conflicts have arisen over the collection and use of such data. Poorer countries, without the financial resources to send up their own satellites, claim that the U.S. is taking information from them without any kind of recompense. They demand that the satellite data gathered from and about their countries be shared with them. The problem is a difficult one. The data derived from satellite information can be extremely valuable, but it is also costly to gather and use. Should the U.S. share the information with the countries from which it is taken?

7.3 Knowing is Destroying

Public agency mandates and the right to access of public records are also creating problems of a different sort. Some agencies are charged with responsibilities to study and thereby help protect endangered species, others to understand and help preserve archaeological sites. Some of these agencies are finding that detailed information about species and their habitats or about sensitive archaeological sites can also harm endangered animals or places. Habitats and sites become vulnerable because they become known. The problem lies in the right to access of public records. Agencies may decide that the best protection of species or sites is simply to not gather detailed information about them.

Some of the sources for the section on GIS and Electronic Databases are listed below.

8. Examination and Study Questions

Last revised 2014.9.11. KEF