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    The Ethics of Computational and Computer Science

    BY
    Sid Karin, NPACI DIRECTOR

    C omputational science and technology have profoundly changed the production, distribution, and exchange of knowledge and information, freeing these activities from the limitations of geographic location and the trammels of physical space. The ability to gather, archive, retrieve, and interpret massive amounts of data has concentrated enormous power in the hands of data gatherers and disseminators. Used ethically, this power delivers social benefits hitherto undreamed of.

    Genomic data now lead to the identification of new pharmaceuticals to fight old--and new--scourges (see, for example, the story on page 12, of a group whose attack on the AIDS virus depends in the first place on a database of available chemicals). Geophysical data, broadcast from satellites and ground-based sensor networks, aid in environmental remediation and the mitigation of potential hazards from natural disasters. Public databases of all kinds contain the promise that what needs to be known may be learned, what has been lost may be found, and what has been forgotten may be remembered.

    ETHICS IN CYBERSPACE

    IMPERATIVES FOR RESEARCHERS

    ETHICS IN CYBERSPACE

    But what if the desire to be found or remembered is not universal? What if statistical medical information, for example, can be tied to the individuals from whom it was originally taken? And what if information that should be public turns up missing?

    Privacy, famously defined by Louis Brandeis as "the right to be let alone," is not some idiosyncratic, peculiarly American notion, a "frill" of civilization not always shared by the rest of the world. The right to privacy is well established in law and is prominent in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document officially honored by most of the world's governments.

    A recent news release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported the results of a study by Forrester Research, Inc., that showed that "nine in 10 Web sites do not live up to basic privacy policies and in fact most privacy policies are a 'joke.' " According to the researchers, fair information guidelines developed by government and industry bodies have been adopted by only 10 percent of e-commerce sites.

    As a result, we also have the phenomenon of quasi-public Web search engines that refuse to deliver
    information about the competitors of the companies that sponsor the engines. The practice of filtering or withholding information is just as injurious as invasion of privacy, although harder to detect.

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    As the designers and builders of the Grid, computational and computer scientists in government, university, and industrial research have a special responsibility to demonstrate leadership in privacy protection and honesty in information sharing.



    IMPERATIVES FOR RESEARCHERS

    Is "e-science" any better equipped than e-commerce to guarantee ethical behavior? It may not be. If agreements governing acceptable practices in the world of e-commerce are honored in the breach, what holds computer and computational scientists to higher standards? Certainly, researchers may agree that neither the ethical nor the legal dimensions of cyberspace are or should be exempt from strictures long binding in ordinary human affairs.

    But the guarantees they offer each other and the public should explicitly address the ways in which individual privacy has been protected and data have been monitored for correctness and completeness. Prompt error correction, full disclosure, privacy, confidentiality, and a readiness to support the users of scientific data are essential to maintaining public trust.

    As the designers and builders of the Grid, computational and computer scientists in government, university, and industrial research have a special responsibility to demonstrate leadership in privacy protection and honesty in information sharing. Organizations, institutions, and companies can work with one another and with regional and national entities to promote the incorporation of privacy safeguards and other ethical standards into their daily practices.

    The tone of e-commerce can be changed if it is re-set by the builders of the Grid, the scientific and engineering community. Moral leadership here can count for a great deal, as can the individual determination of all of us to accept our responsibility in this arena. *

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