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Discussion Questions

for the The Green Dam Cyber-Censor Case

Imagine that, instead of the Green Dam Escort project, the Chinese Government has hired a large international US-Based company to build their mandated internet browser application. The project is secret, and not even the programmers know its intended use. Meanwhile, you work for Microsoft Inc. on a top secret project for which code work is split among teams working on modules, where team members are kept in the dark about the functionality and purpose of the full application. You suspect it is a US Military project but you are not sure. Consider the following scenarios.

1. You have been concerned that the software module that you are working on could be used by the US Government (or Military) to monitor citizen internet use. Such government intrusion on privacy is at odds with your values and ethics, but so far it is just a hunch. You tried to indirectly broach this subject with your manager but got a very clear signal that it was not your role or concern to think about the big picture--"just keep doing your job well as you have been, and don't worry about it." You want to keep your good relationship with your boss--you have seen with others that he can be a difficult person to work for if he does not like you.

Then you hear something on Public Radio about a news leak describing the Chinese Cyber-Sensor software mandate. The goals of censoring and monitoring citizen internet use are described, but details are sketchy and the news leak does not mention which software company is involved. You realize that the project you are working on may be the one mentioned. Now you have two reasons to be concerned about this software project. You begin to wonder why a couple of colleagues have been fired recently--was it because they started asking questions? You have great stock options and a family to support.

What would you do? What are your options? What are the pros and cons of the various options at your disposal? What informal criteria or principles do you use when weighing the pros and cons like this?

2. You have a friend, a brilliant and somewhat renegade programmer who works on another team at Microsoft, and you both think you are probably working on the same application. Out for lunch with him you mention the Public Radio news story and your suspicions and concerns about the possible uses and abuses of the application. Your friend confides that she has built a "trap door" into the software that will send the information that the software is gathering to a secure site that she has set up. Her intention is to be able to monitor how the software is used so that if anything illegal or ethically contemptible is happening she will be able to report it to the authorities or the press.

You have little doubt that she can pull this off, but you are torn by a number of concerns. You think she is going too far with this. She may be jeopardizing herself, and her solution to the ethical dilemma seems to have its own ethical problems from your perspective.

Again, what would you do? What are your options in this situation? What are the pros and cons of the various options at your disposal? What informal criteria or principles do you use when weighing the pros and cons like this?

3. Organizations and Governments have valid reasons for wanting to monitor the activities of employees and citizens. They are concerned with competitive edge, sabotage and spying; trade, diplomatic, or military secrets and national/corporate security breaches; and simply worker productivity. Yet privacy and freedom of speech are core values in democratic societies. What are your thoughts on how the interests can and should be balanced? What procedures or safeguards should be put in place? If possible, give an example context (real or hypothetical).

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