Ethics Education for a Technical Workforce

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Some call him a hero, some a traitor. Either way, the story of Edward Snowden has captured the attention of a worldwide audience. To some, he's a spy tuned whistle-blower who has uncovered tawdry government secrets and released them to the world. To others, he's a double agent who gave away important American intelligence to the enemy. The question is, did Snowden know what he was doing, and why?

It turns out that Snowden was not a spy at all, but a geek -- a computer systems administrator who helped take care of the networks at the National Security Agency. This job was considered so routine that it was contracted out to a consulting company for which Snowden worked. Snowden received a technical education, not a political one. In fact, he dropped out of school, eschewing general education with history and literature for a narrow set of technical skills.

In the workforce, Snowden was a valuable asset to the companies for which he worked. He could solve technical problems quickly, and hack his way successfully through thickets of code and security. He was given, even in his 20's, increasing responsibility for technical services. And the passwords he needed to access the databases and networks used by the NSA.

Did his supervisors realize what would happen? Or did they assume that Snowden, because he seemed so smart, was also a well-educated young man capable of making sound moral and ethical decisions about the information he had access to?

We see no evidence in Snowden's background or in his writings or statements that he has developed the ethical background to make the momentous decision to release national security information. Compare his with other whistleblowers, such as Daniel Ellsberg, who released the then-secret Pentagon Papers on the conduct of the Vietnam War in the early 1970's. Ellsberg received a broad liberal arts education, including graduate study in decision theory, and before he blew his whistle he had served in important government and academic positions for 20 years.

Both men violated the law willingly and on purpose. Which one understood better the implications of his action?

Today's workforce needs effective technicians, hackers, and geeks. But before we grant them the keys to the kingdom, we want to make sure that their education also includes the moral, ethical, political, and historical understandings that will enable them to make sound decisions on important matters of policy. this goes not just for the NSA, but for the local insurance company, school district, hospital, or chemical plant. A technical education alone may not suffice in our interconnected, interdependent, and global economy.

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