What Is Information Ethics?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

"Information ethics" is a term used to describe the study and evaluation of the various ethical issues that arise in a world that is driven by the sharing of electronic data. Typically, this type of study will look closely at the morality involved in making use of the information or data, how innovations in information technology can help to promote ethical use of information, and in general identifying ways to practice workable ethics in virtual environments. From this perspective, information ethics is important to anyone who makes use of data electronically, ranging from casual users who utilize password protected email accounts to large businesses that store and share proprietary data in some type of virtual environment.

Information ethics covers the protection of trade secrets and corporate practices.
Information ethics covers the protection of trade secrets and corporate practices.

At the core of most approaches to information ethics is the process of defining what constitutes ethical behavior in terms of protecting information that only needs to be available to authorized individuals, the creation of secure means of sharing data when and as necessary, and data storage solutions that make it easy to keep data for easy retrieval when needed. These concerns can be applied to everything from protecting the security of an email account to preventing corporate espionage by setting up security protocols that prevent breaches to servers and other components in an information network. The issues that are common to information ethics often have to do with not only how to store and share data but how to prevent its use by people who should not have access to that information.

Information ethics are an important aspect of military operations.
Information ethics are an important aspect of military operations.

Information technology provides a number of tools that help to promote ethical use of data. As this relates to the study of information ethics, developing technology can aid in defeating the use of spyware and various forms of malware by protecting proprietary information. For example, a company may practice strong information ethics by using technology that effectively blocks hackers from breaching servers and capturing bank and credit card information collected when fulfilling customer orders. By blocking that access, the company upholds the ethical and moral responsibility to protect the information entrusted to them by their customers.

The broader scope of information ethics looks at all aspects of utilizing information in a manner that is considered moral and ethical. Just as there has always been a need to practice some degree of discretion with information that is obtained by non-electronic means, the reality of a world operating largely with the use of the Internet, private and public networks, and a huge amount of electronic data in storage, there is the need to use and protect information so that the outcome is productive and does not create undue hardship for others. From this perspective, engaging in ongoing discussions about information ethics can help companies design better information systems and also aid consumers in understanding what they can do in terms of protecting and sharing data appropriately.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including EasyTechJunkie, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


@Soulfox -- but such ethical concerns have been around for a long time. Think about cassette tapes. It was easy to record music on them, and it was a common practice in the 1980s to buy a bunch of tapes, head over to a friend's house and record a lot of music illegally. When CDs came into vogue, the same thing was true. And, ever since the advent of commercial software, there has been a problem with people pirating it.

Still, you are right -- the fact that such information was physical in nature (a diskette, cassette tape or compact disc) limited how many times one item could be shared with others.

But one has to ask a question. Have our ethics gotten worse or has technology made it easier for people who don't give a hang about the ethics or morality to simply swipe things?


Information ethics differ from ethics when it comes to sharing "traditional" information because there is no physical, tangible thing at issue. Here's what I mean. If you have a record album, who you can share it with is limited by the fact that you have one album and you can only share the information on it so many times. The fact it is a physical object means that, by design, you have a limited audience that benefit from it.

If you are to "rip" that album into a digital format, you can share it to an unlimited audience through various sites on the Internet that facilitate such sharing. Enforcing any code of ethics on digital information that is freely available to anyone interested is tough, and that's doubly true when information that ought not be shared is passed around so much that the practice of grabbing it becomes acceptable.

Sharing such digital information, too, has become so common that any laws that are broken in the process are hard to enforce. You've got laws prohibiting such sharing and many of them are ethical in nature, but the system has been overwhelmed. Law enforcement might be able to catch a few people, but it can't catch them all and ethics often go out the window when people realize that the likelihood of getting into trouble is slim to none.

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