Scientific advances allow businesses to use technology to reach goals more easily and more completely than ever before. In some areas, however, such applications of technology start infringing on the rights of individuals and may be unethical. Governments and ethically operated companies are aware of these limitations. Governments have passed privacy laws and regulated communication companies. Some companies self-censor and apply internal policies to limit unethical behavior. Businesses that wish to be considered ethical must look at whether applying certain technologies may harm some individuals and constrain such applications to what is absolutely necessary.
Individual privacy is one area that has been identified clearly as a base for unethical business behavior through the application of technologies. Companies can track Internet usage, buying habits and individual movement as well as collect personal information about millions of customers or even potential clients. While governments have passed legislation restricting the collection of personal data and allowing individuals some control over what companies can collect and store, ethical businesses must decide — independently of legislation — what is appropriate behavior.
Companies monitor employees and visitors and collect much additional information in the name of security. Ethical issues arise from the continuous monitoring of employee activity and the recording of security camera images. An unjustified level of employee surveillance is ethically questionable; the ethical company must try to establish a level of monitoring it can justify. The surveillance of non-employees, such as visitors or suppliers’ representatives, must be constrained to an even lower level to be ethically acceptable.
Where it used to be difficult to monitor telephone conversations due to the nature of the analog signal, companies and governments can easily monitor digital, text-based communication, such as email. Computers can scan the text of millions of messages for words that are of interest to investigators and identify the sender. Companies that employ such technologies must ask themselves about the ethical implications of such surveillance, especially if it is carried out without the knowledge or explicit agreement of employees.
With new technologies allowing the easy creation and distribution of images and videos, both individual employees and companies need guidelines as to what is acceptable. Without such guidelines, some of this content will be offensive to some of the company staff and to some members of the public. When developing such guidelines, companies may be quite restrictive in terms of what is permissible within the business. Such restrictions only become ethical issues when the company tries to extend them into the employees’ private lives. The interaction of such restrictions with legal limits on hate speech and pornography, as well as with community standards, make this a particularly delicate area for business ethics.