Ethics for all?

In a recent posting to his blog, John Naughton writes of his long-held conviction that engineering courses ought to include courses in ethics.

Nothing I’ve seen in the last forty years as an academic in a technology faculty has changed that view. But ethics remains a taboo subject in most engineering curricula. Here’s a contemporary illustration of why we educators need to take the subject seriously.

Two European companies — a major contractor to the U.S. government and a top cell-phone equipment maker — last year installed an electronic surveillance system for Iran that human rights advocates and intelligence experts say can help Iran target dissidents.

Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), a joint venture between the Finnish cell-phone giant Nokia and German powerhouse Siemens, delivered what is known as a monitoring center to Irantelecom, Iran’s state-owned telephone company.

A spokesman for NSN said the servers were sold for “lawful intercept functionality,” a technical term used by the cell-phone industry to refer to law enforcement’s ability to tap phones, read e-mails and surveil electronic data on communications networks.

In Iran, a country that frequently jails dissidents and where regime opponents rely heavily on Web-based communication with the outside world, a monitoring center that can archive these intercepts could provide a valuable tool to intensify repression.

And of course this applies even more to the technology Cisco & Co are supplying to enable the Chinese regime to operate their Great Firewall.

Sigh.

UPDATE: Rory Cellan-Jones just tweeted “Nokia Siemens just told me the software they supplied to Iran is the same “lawful intercept” system used by loads of western governments.” That’s what they all say. What it boils down to is this: “If it’s ‘lawful’ within the jurisdiction we’re exporting to, then we will supply it”. Which gives them carte-blanche to supply anyone, no matter how barbaric, so long as the client is a sovereign state. I wonder, for example, who supplies IT surveillance kit to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe?

I’d go even further and suggest that every educated person should have been exposed to at least one course in ethics. I do realise that this suggestion is hardly likely to endear me to those who think that ethics and religion are two sides of the same unacceptable coin.

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