Firms Ponder Ethics of Computer Usage

Article excerpt

When Alana Shoars arrived for work at Epson America Inc. one morning in January 1990, she discovered her supervisor reading and printing out electronic mail messages between other employees.

As electronic mail administrator, Shoars was appalled. When she had trained employees to use the computerized system, Shoars told them their mail was private. Now a company manager was violating that trust.

When she questioned the practice, Shoars said, she was told to mind her own business. A day later, she was fired for insubordination. She has since filed a $1 million wrongful termination suit.

A spokesman for Epson America, which is based in Torrance, Calif., refused to discuss Shoars' account of the monitoring episode and insisted that her dismissal had nothing to do with her questioning of the electronic mail practice. He denied that Epson America, the United States marketing arm of a Japanese company, had a policy of monitoring electronic mail.

The Shoars case has brought attention not only to issues of technology and employee privacy, but also to broader questions of ethics among computer professionals. By taking a public stand, Shoars has become a visible exception in a profession that tends to ignore or avoid ethical issues, according to academicians and consultants who monitor the field.

Although Shoars has found a new job as electronic mail administrator at Warner Brothers in Burbank, Calif., she still bristles about Epson:

"You don't read other people's mail just as you don't listen to their phone conversations. Right is right, and wrong is wrong."

Michael Simmons, chief information officer at the Bank of Boston, disagrees totally.

"If the corporation owns the equipment and pays for the network, that asset belongs to the company, and it has a right to look and see if people are using it for purposes other than running the business," he said.

At a previous job, for example, Simmons discovered that one employee was using the computer system to handicap horse races and another was running his Amway business on his computer. Both were fired immediately.

"The guy handicapping horses was using 600 megabytes of memory,"

Simmons said.

Federal Express, American Airlines, Pacific Bell and United Parcel Service all have electronic-mail systems that automatically inform employees that the company reserves the right to monitor messages.

But many companies have yet to formulate clear policies or inform employees of those policies.

"It's highly irresponsible for an employer not to have a policy,"

said Mitchell Kapor, former chairman of the Lotus Development Corp., who left the company five years ago.

Some believe, however, that even if there is advance notice, the monitoring of electronic mail or searching through personal files is flat-out wrong. One who takes that position is Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University.

He said: "Even if a company does post notice, is that something it should do? The legal question may be answered, but is it ethical? The company may say it is, but the employees say it isn't, and there's a conflict."

Though they oversee the electronic mail networks, computer professionals have generally removed themselves from such debates. Simmons said that if ethics were the topic of a meeting of information systems experts, "it would be a very short meeting."

Technologists approach the information resource in a distinctive way, said Detmar Straub, assistant professor of management information services at the University of Minnesota.

"They say, `If the system can do it, let's do it,' rather than `should the system do it?' " Straub said. "I've talked to systems managers who say they wouldn't hire a programmer who couldn't break into any system."

But as computers and networks extend their reach into global business, such attitudes may no longer suffice. …