Ethical Issues in Information Privacy

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In the current business world, the information constitutes a very important aspect that organizations exhaust all the machinery at their disposal to protect. This paper will look at how information and privacy relate to each other as organizations battle for a share of the consumers’ pocket. This paper will also analyze the various reasons behind information privacy and the consequences that have befallen organizations that have not been secretive with information concerning marketing strategies and expansion ventures. The findings in this paper realized that information privacy is imperative for any organization that seeks to competitively ensure that their goods and services are constantly sought after by consumers. There was also the realization that there are many aspects of information within an organization, some of which can be shared and others that cannot be shared. This paper analyzes informational privacy with regard to moral theories to critically analyze the implications. The implication is that in most instances, employees or even managers give out information without the knowledge that such information can have dire consequences to the organization. Therefore, among other recommendations, this paper emphasizes the need for a company to have clearly defined outlines regarding the handling of sensitive information.

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According to IBM chairman, Palmisano, “Almost every one of us thinks that our choices and work should be governed by what we value.” (IBM, 2009). The chairman made this statement when introducing the IBM business conduct guidelines for the employees of the organization. Emphasized by the chairman is the fact that the guidelines should be important when the organization agrees on what the employees should do, not with the individual in perspective but with the whole organization in consideration. This is with the understanding that at every level each employee can make a decision that not only affects them individually but affects the organization as a whole. This statement outlines a strong aspect of business ethics faced by organizations from time to time. Unlike laws that are clearly stipulated and can sometimes be interpreted directly, the code of ethics within an organization only provides guidelines that employees should act along. (Victoria, 2004). The decision of whether a particular act is ethical or unethical is therefore left to individuals who may sometimes perceive or interpret them differently. Most organizations come up with well-written documents that are expected to act as guidelines for employees. However ethical issues still arise due to conflicts in perceptions and interpretation. Even IBM admits that people encounter ethical issues from time to time and there is no single pre-designated way to deal with them even if in some instances prompt choices are required. It is for this reason that most organizations provide the guidelines so that when faced with ethical questions employees should make choices in line with the values stipulated in their respective. An organization should operate as a single entity which means the values can never be contradictory. However, it becomes difficult when each employee is left to act according to their own values. The differences are well explained by two normative theories of moral ethics; deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology emphasizes the aspect of independent moral duties governed and regulated by particular rules. The set of rules governing deontological are provided for by religion. Utilitarianism on the other hand explains that an act can be considered moral if it leads to a bigger good. (Darwal, 2003).

Background to the Study

Leaking out information to competitors with regard to the regulation by most organizations constitutes a very serious crime. Leaking out confidential information constitutes an unethical act because it goes against the principles of loyalty. This is especially the case when the act is done with the intention of ruining a company’s financial or soiling the image of the company. However, there are also instances when employees may give private information unknowingly but still be judged with the same severity as those employees who give the information knowingly. The extent to which the latter act is unethical is questionable whereas the extent to which the former is unethical is obvious. There is also a third scenario called whistleblowing where employees willingly offer information regarding certain corrupt senior employees. Whistleblowing has received varied reactions with regard to the extent to which it is ethical especially in terms of the way it taints an organization’s reputation. Therefore when considering informational privacy from an ethical perspective, it is important to put these factors into perspective before passing quick judgment. Ethical issues in information privacy also arise when employers require their employees to disclose certain aspects about themselves that are considered too personal. (Castellin, 2004).

Study Objectives

The major objective of this is to determine the extent to which informational privacy issues touch on ethics. Other objectives will be to analyze how organizations perceive privacy and how they deal with violations of informational privacy.

Study Questions

The objectives of this study will be arrived at by seeking to answer the following questions:

  1. The reason why information privacy becomes an issue.
  2. Ways in which privacy can be compromised.
  3. Steps that organizations can take to mitigate and prevent information privacy violations.

Literature Review

In a case study involving Hewlett-Packard, Patricia Dunn the corporate director at Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley and had just become suspicious that someone within the board was leaking out company secrets. Dunn then decided to hire private investigators to determine who the culprit was. The methodologies used by the private investigators to obtain information included pretending that they were HP directors and journalists in order to obtain private information about employees. This act of obtaining private information under the guise of being someone else is called pretexting. Eventually, the culprit was cornered but Dunn was also forced to resign apparently because she had acted unethically in hiring investigators who obtained private information using pretext. On employee privacy, IBM guidelines explain that the management has the right to obtain private information concerning employees within the confines of the company. However, the information is obtained after the employee has been notified. IBM guidelines also emphasize that employees are not allowed to obtain private information of other employees. In the guidelines, there is no mention of pretexting but it is however considered unethical. Legally pretexting is considered a criminal offense even if most companies do not have definite clauses concerning pretexting. (IBM, 2009).

According to an article released recently by msnbc (2009), a challenge to the policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving freely in the military was turned down by the U.S Supreme Court. The policy by the Department of Defense uses the “don’t ask don’t tell the method to ensure that nobody in the military can declare openly to be gay or lesbian and the major objective was to “maintain cohesion and discipline,” according to the article by mscbn. The military is just one of the many employers in America that require employees to adhere to a particular employment contract of which violation can lead to immediate dismissal or other punitive measures. During the enumeration or hiring, process employees are always required to answer questions some of which are inappropriate.

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Ethical Issues

According to John Stuart Mill (1863), “the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse. This is the basis behind the utilitarian approach. This approach is particularly relevant and applicable when considering a situation where different people hold different opinions depending on their values. An act can therefore be considered moral depending on the degree to which it promotes happiness. For instance, when a doctor euthanizes a chronically ill patient on request for the patient and the patient’s family is the act moral or immoral? The utilitarian approach will definitely consider the act moral because it alleviates the pain of both the patient and the family. However, from a deontological viewpoint, the act will be considered as immoral because it is against religious beliefs and rules of leaving the decision of who lives and who dies to God. Dunn’s acts were based on the fact that private information was leaking outside which definitely is not good for business especially in the face of competitors, and she was determined to ensure that the culprit was caught and dealt with accordingly. She, therefore, decided to hire private investigators. The culprit George Keyworth on discovery asked Dunn why she had not asked him about the leakage because he would have told him. However, the lingering question is the motive behind Keyworth’s action. If Keyworth was acting in the interest of the company and not personal interest then there is no excuse for his actions because they clearly go against the morals of any company. However, according to HP rules, Keyworth could only be voted out by shareholders.

Tom Perkins the director who was materialistic in advocating for Dunn’s forced resignation also had personal interests ahead of the company’s interest. First one can argue that Perkin’s could have used Keyworth knowing very well how Dunn would react. Secondly, it is also apparent that Dunn and Perkin were not very fond of each other due to their different modes of operation. It would be unfair to plot against another person just because they operate differently and in the process put a whole organization’s reputation and image at stake. Similarly, Dunn’s actions also placed the organization’s image and reputation at stake.

One of the requirements for an individual to join the military is that the individual should not have more than two dependents. The most probable explanation for such a requirement is that in case of death in a duty that has a higher probability in the military, the government will not have a heavier burden of catering for the dependents. This argument can be substantiated by the deontological view of normative ethics which believes that the greater good should always take preference. The mandate of the US military is to ensure the safety of American citizens from aggression, therefore the US military is mandated by the government to ensure that expenses are reduced and can therefore be channeled towards other military programs such as research and manufacturing of weapons. (, 2009). Since the US military serves the role of protecting all American citizens while an individual may only serve to protect no more than three people, for instance, the military, therefore, performs a greater good. However, the military is a great responsibility that needs other factors such as passion and complete patriotism. Therefore when an individual has considered all the aspects related to serving in the military and still feels strongly to enlist, such an individual should not be denied the chance just because they have several dependants. Another possible consideration would be the age factor because it is an assumption that the many dependants a person has, the higher the probability that they are above 35 which is the maximum age of enlisting. But this is not always true because the person could be taking care of siblings or parents or even grandparents. (David, 2006).

For individuals with the age of 17 and below, parental consent is required before such an individual can make join the military. The general perception is that such individuals do not have the capacity to make lifelong decisions such as joining the military. Parental consent should not be a requirement if an individual has already been proven to be of the required age. A person should not be denied serving other American citizens just because their parents think that they would rather be a lawyer or a doctor. The most important thing is that a person has attained the age to join the military and that they are also willing to serve American citizens. Some parents may also pressure their children to join the military therefore parental consent does not prove that the individual is willing. Deontology will argue that the greater good is to ensure that individuals of 17 years and below make the decision responsibly under the guidance of their parents. However, not all parents provide the correct guidance because the individual might be under pressure to maintain the family legacy. (, 2009).


As explained by the IBM chairman people act according to their values which may be different. From a deontological viewpoint, Dunn’s actions broke the rules of operation because the private investigators she hired used pretexting. From a Utilitarianism point of view, Dunn also forgot the greater good of the organization. (Stuart, 1863). Therefore it was just for Dunn to have been forced to resign. This study has utilized moral theories to bring out various aspects of informational privacy with regard to ethical issues. There is a general understanding that moral perceptions, especially in the contemporary world are interpreted and perceived differently. However, the general understanding is that there are certain forms of information that should not leave the walls of the boardroom let alone the organization. (McCullough, 2001). There is also personal information regarding employees that the human resource is not required to disclose, not even to other employees. Ethical issues are one of the diverse contentious issues in the contemporary business world. This is because they can be interpreted and argued from different perspectives as outlined by the ethical theories discussed. For instance, the acts by the corporate director of Hewlett-Packard were for the general good of the company. However, just because she used unethical ways during her investigations she might not have the chance of winning the case. Keyworth. Informational privacy is brought out in the two cases; Keyworth acted unethically in leaking out private company information and Patricia Dunn on the other hand obtained information concerning Keyworth’s actions unethically. With regard to the United States military, it is also understandable that it is unethical to ask candidates their sexual orientation during enlisting. These are the various ways in which the privacy of information can be compromised.


Whether ethical issues are approached from a deontological or utilitarian point of view, it is easy to observe that the perceptions are diverse. However, organizations can have a set of guidelines that are clearly defined regarding the information that can be provided and to whom. Such guidelines can prevent employees from disclosing sensitive information unknowingly. (Gregor et al 2003). Such guidelines can also act as evidence in case an employee acts in violation. Employers should also restrain from asking employees some sensitive personal information to avoid portraying an organization in a bad ethical light. (Bowred & Meyer, 2003). The ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ used by the military is an example.


The cases presented in this study have outlined various perspectives that ethical issues may arise in information privacy. An employee may disclose private information concerning an organization; an organization may disclose or look for private information concerning employees or employers may ask an interviewee for sensitive private information. There are also various ethical theories that can be used to argue issues pertaining to informational privacy and the general idea is to bring out the diversity. However, the resolution according to this study is that private information should be respected, and should therefore not be disclosed.

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Reference List

  1. Bowred, M & Meyer, J. (2002). Ethical Issues Arising During Employee Remuneration. California: California University Press.
  2. Castellin, M. (2004). Ethical Issues in Business: A Modern Approach. London: McGraw-Hill
  3. Darwal, S. (2003). Deontology. Blackwell Publisher.
  4. David A. (2006). Newsweek. 144 (10).
  5. Gregor, L., Sharon, S. & Emerald, L. (2003). Ethical Issues from a Corporate Perspective. New York, NY: Blackwell.
  6. IBM (2009). Business Conduct Guidelines.
  7. McCullough, L. (2001). Ethical Issues: Legal Perspective. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.
  8. (2009). 10 Steps to Joining Military. Web.
  9. Stuart, J. (1863). Utilitarianism. Web.
  10. Victoria, M, A. (2004). Human Resource Management: Ethical Issues. London: McGraw Hill

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