ST. LOUIS — It happens every day in the workplace: Software gets pirated, pornography is downloaded, work time slips away through e-mail chats with friends.
Unethical behavior in the workplace has posed a problem since Cain clashed with Abel. But information technology makes such wrongdoing ridiculously easy. With a few taps on the computer, employees can see more data, send more data, than ever.
Information technology is so flexible, so pervasive, that it gives individuals incredible power for wrongdoing, even when their motives are not malicious.
Powerful tool for or against ethics
"Information technology is the closest thing we have to a universal tool - therefore you can use it to do almost anything unethical," says Terrell Ward Bynum, director of the Research Center on Computing and Society at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
"The vast majority of companies," he adds, "as far as I can see, are just letting it happen."
This unprecedented control over information has unleashed a powerful economic boom. But it is also setting off alarm bells in corporate headquarters. If companies don't act soon to set limits on the new technology, ethics experts say, they risk stumbling into the data equivalent of a minefield.
Unethical and unwise
Earlier this year, Texas Instruments learned one of its employees contributed regularly to an Internet chat line for investors. Unfortunately, the worker was sending out company information that hadn't yet been made public. When queried, the worker had no idea he'd done something wrong.
"Talk about remorseful," says Carl Skooglund, director of the Texas Instruments ethics office. "He was absolutely shocked at what he had done."
A few months after Nortel, the Canadian telecom giant, initiated its open Internet policy - in which any employee could look at the sites browsed by any other worker - an employee approached the ethics office, complaining bitterly about the policy.
So ethics director Megan Barry looked at his Internet use and, sure enough, the employee was browsing hard-core pornography on the job. He was fired.
In fact, some 45 percent of workers, in a survey this year, said they use company technology illicitly.
The top infractions seemed relatively minor: Internet shopping at work, copying company software for home use, and "creating a potentially dangerous situation by using new technologies while driving" (for example, changing lanes while dialing the boss on the cell phone).
To be sure, not all such ethical problems are new. And firms have adapted previous waves of new technology.
To combat the current wave, which has the potential for much greater harm, some companies have written specific Internet policies.
Besides Texas Instruments and Nortel, ethics consultants give IBM and Bell Atlantic high marks for addressing technology's challenges. But even these companies admit they have a long way to go.
Looking for clarity
One reason: The line between right and wrong looks fuzzy in cyberspace.
Many companies write a policy for it similar to the telephone: It's a company asset, but you can use it, sparingly, for personal reasons.
But e-mail packs far more power than a phone call. It can be copied, archived, and forwarded to thousands of people. Should employers start monitoring e-mail?
Digital piracy presents another difficult issue. If workers illegally copy software, that's stealing. But what happens if someone copies 15 percent of someone else's digital art and distorts it, creating a "new" work of art?
"There's no clear answer to the question at the moment," says Professor Bynum. "It will take probably 25 to 50 years to solve."
Feel the power
"[People] get so enamored with the capabilities of these electronic communications systems that they lose their moorings," says Mr. Skooglund of Texas Instruments. "Someone who would never dream of stealing, say, a $10 item from a grocery market somehow doesn't have the same degree of repugnance when it comes to illegally copying a $600 piece of software."
Even computer professionals disagree widely on questions of technology ethics. In a survey published last year, Frank Maldacker and Stuart Varden of Pace University put a number of ethical questions to computer professionals at a suburban New York manufacturer.
Asked whether it was acceptable to access computer-based information about their organization - information not required to do their job - nearly a third saw no problem as long as no harm was done; 23 percent disagreed.
And there are social trade-offs.
Americans generally don't want corporations tracking their shopping, says Norman Willox, president of the National Fraud Center, an information technology company in suburban Philadelphia.
But to combat crime, credit-card companies need to profile customers' spending habits. If a card is stolen, they can detect abnormal charges before losses mount.
But how far should such companies go to battle fraud technologically? Last year, a local government authority in Britain took a closer look at people receiving welfare benefits.
A technique called data-matching compared profiles of would-be cheats with the welfare agency's client base. The suspicious ones got more scrutiny.
And the effort found some cheats, says Simon Rogerson, director of the Center for Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University in Leicester, Britain.
"But they also found that a lot of people who were [labeled] potential fraudsters weren't. There's a situation where you could well be put into the position of having to prove your innocence because someone thinks you're guilty."