Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

September 11, 2002:

Professor Peter Singer discusses Internet ethics

On Thursday, August 17, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "When Princeton Snoops on Yale." PAW sent a copy of that editorial along with several questions about Internet ethics to Peter Singer, the Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values. Singer's answers to PAW's questions follow the Times's editorial.


When Princeton Snoops on Yale

It seemed somehow emblematic of our age: jockeying for admission to the best colleges has spiraled so out of control that one of the most sought-after schools, Princeton, was discovered spying on another, Yale.

In the end, however, the case offered up a somewhat different lesson - that the ethics and legality of using the Internet are still so poorly grasped by even our most sophisticated citizens.

The story unfolded this spring when Princeton's admissions director, Stephen LeMenager, became curious about the Web site Yale uses to notify applicants that they have been admitted. Applicants gain access to the site with their names, birthdates and Social Security numbers. Since many students apply to both Princeton and Yale, Mr. LeMenager took the name of an applicant and signed on to the Yale site to scrutinize the information there.

It never occurred to him that the keystrokes that gained him entry to the site were the rough equivalent of using a purloined key to open a neighbor's front door. He subsequently discussed his visits openly with members of his staff who rushed to check up on Yale's admittances. An impartial investigation showed that Princeton had already mailed out its acceptance letters, so the information gained by the break-in gave it no competitive edge.

Nonetheless, it was quite wrong. Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman, sent the right message this week when she permanently removed Mr. LeMenager from his admissions post and said she would discipline those who had followed his example. The case shows, among other things, how much even innocent snoopers can learn by keying in basic facts about a person. It also shows that we still have a long way to go before it is widely understood that prying into a Web site is no different from ransacking a mailbox and stealing a letter addressed to someone else.


PAW talks with Professor Peter Singer

PAW: Do you equate going into a restricted area on the Internet with "taking a purloined key to open a neighbor's door"?

Singer: No. To enter someone's house with a stolen key is likely to be seen as physically threatening to those inside, so it is different. Apart from that, at least up to now, we feel differently about our homes from the way we feel about information on an Internet site.

PAW: What is the best way for users of the Internet to decide what's "right" and what's "wrong", since it can be relatively fast and sometimes easy to find "restricted" information?

Singer: If the information is restricted, and you are not authorized to access it, then, unless you have weighty overriding reasons for obtaining it — for example, to prevent a serious crime — it is wrong to try to get it.

PAW: What if the information you get from a restricted area is benign, relatively amusing, and not used in any way?

Singer: It's still a violation of the privacy of the person whose information is being obtained without permission. That may not be a very serious wrong, but it's still, other things being equal, wrong.

PAW: Let's say one were to always abide by an ethical code when it comes to the Internet and most people did not, is that fair? Whose ethical code?

Singer: That's like asking about insider trading, when most people are doing it. We still need people to set an example and not stoop to what most people are doing.

Whose ethical code? In these cases, just not trying to break into sites that are protected is enough of an ethical principle. You don't need a fully worked out ethical code.

PAW: In the case of Princeton, President Tilghman had to be the heavy and punish the miscreants. But who decides in the world wide web what's unethical?

Singer: We each decide for ourselves.

PAW: Who does the punishing?

Singer: Sometimes, there is no punishment. The web is fairly anarchic. But in other cases, it is possible to bring the police in, as Yale did in the case of the violations of its site.

Whether that is justifiable, or too heavy-handed, is another question.

PAW: Does all this fall into "Just because you can do it doesn't mean it's okay."?

Singer: Yes.

PAW: In an office when underlings know that a superior "did something wrong" and don't report it, is that unethical?

Singer: Subordinate officers should feel free to express their views to their managers. They act by the highest ethical standards when they do so. But if they do not, the fault may lie as much with an intimidatory office manager, who does not encourage open communication, as with the underlings.

PAW: I don't think had I been working in the admission office and saw the boss doing what he did I would have thought twice about doing it myself. Nor am I sure it would have occurred to me to report him. My guess is I would have thought it must be okay since he's doing it. Also I might think, arrogantly, that if Yale were so stupid, then they deserve to be "hacked into." Can you comment?

Singer: I don't agree. Using information supplied to you as part of a student's confidential application, to break into another university's website, especially one that warns against unauthorized entry, should have set ethical alarm bells ringing.

PAW: What do you think about screen names? Is it ethical to have a pseudonym instead of using your own name?

Singer: Yes, as long as you are not pretending to others that it is your real name.

PAW: What about lying about who you are on the Internet to protect your privacy?

Singer: That would depend on the circumstances of what you are doing.

PAW: Something must be amiss when it comes to the Internet, or something must be amiss when it comes to human ethics and the Internet, or people wouldn't need firewalls and passwords. What do you think?

Singer: Of course something is "amiss", but we already knew that. That's why we lock our front doors when we leave home.

PAW: Is sending spam unethical?

Singer: Yes. It wastes people's time.

PAW: Why is wasting someone's time unethical?

Singer: Because it harms them. It deprives them of the opportunity to use that time for something more worthwhile.

PAW: Would you report to Dean Taylor, for instance, were you to see a colleague doing something unethical?

Singer: If it was serious, I'd talk to the colleague first, but if that did not overcome the problem, then yes, I would take the matter up with someone in a position of higher authority.

PAW: How do people decide what to do in an objective way, so that their decisions are based entirely on any given situation without regard to their own safety or well being?

Singer: You've heard this one before: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Just put yourself in the position of others affected.

PAW: Is the best motto that of Jeremy Bentham: The greatest good for the greatest number of people?

Singer: I prefer to put it this way: Give equal consideration to the interests of all those affected by your actions.

PAW: Is it a case of invasion of privacy to secretly use someone else's social security number or name or password to access a web site? What if they know you're doing it?

Singer: If they know you are doing it and consent to your use of their number or password, it's OK, but otherwise, it is an invasion of their privacy.