January 2009





by Richard Thieme


Because implicit ethical and moral dimensions emerge from new

social and cultural structures as a result of technological transformations,

any discussion of ethics in relationship to the implementation

of new technologies must take into account a heightened

awareness of those dimensions. Because the philosophical and religious

systems that animate society simultaneously undergo transformation,

emergent paradigms must find expression in formulations

as explicit and precise as possible and the implications of

those paradigms correlated to new possibilities for action. Implications

of this discussion for human identity at all levels necessarily

inform this exploration.


PostWorldWar II, R&D in the many branches of the intelligence

community and military services have shared responsibility for creating

technological engines that have transformed human identity

and therefore the Kuhnian paradigm in which we frame possibilities

for action. Action means options, and options mean ethics. I

define "ethics" for the purposes of this panel as the options that are

most congruent with our core notions of identity, self, integrity, and

"the right thing to do."


Because all technological transformation processes cause a fundamental"

identity shift," our awareness of options must be referenced

to those transformational processes because they also alter

religious experience, ideation and organizational structures and the

way we frame ethical imperatives. It is, therefore, our first ethical

imperative to be accountable to a fuller awareness of what this

means for the people we serve by our work.


Definitions of everyday reality—privacy, security, legal guarantees

— are being transformed by the technologies of surveillance,

information, and communication. To articulate a moral dimension

in order to formulate a basis for establishing the core values we

bring to the various tasks of information security—attack, intrude,

co-opt, subvert on one hand, and defend, preserve, and sustain on

the other — we discover that we get that for which we test like a

physicist determining whether photons are particles or waves.

"Common sense reality" is a function of the technologies from

which our social and psychological lives emerge. Those technologies

are invisible frames because we live inside the picture, so if

we define ethical issues in the context created by prior technologies

then we derive familiar recognizable and comforting concepts

as a result, but ones that unfortunately no longer fit the real-life

context created by new technologies. Our ethical decisions are, in

short, inauthentic. It is not that we deceive others but that we first

deceive ourselves. That is the heart of the problem.


We do not share a vocabulary, much less a consensus, for discussing

how those technologies informcontemporary cultural structures.

Yet the need to have this discussion is itself an implicit consequence

of the changes I am describing.


Therefore, even a cursory exploration of ethical issues in computer

security must include a meta-ethical dimension, one congruent

with the newly emergent forms and structures of our lives, up to

and including geopolitical and extraterrestrial structures (i.e., confronting

the realities mandated by permanent space colonies, lunar

andMartian outposts, and the recontextualization of air and ground

war by space war).


"All great truths," said George Bernard Shaw, "begin as blasphemies."

[17] Today's blasphemy is tomorrow's "truth." Between

times, however, we live in the fog of war. In a world which posits

terrorists (i.e., enemies of social and economic order) as the Other,

the mind of society is the battlefield. Images and ideas are the primary

weapons, and the means by which they come into being and

move through human networks is the subtext of all security. The

paradigms we use determine the questions we are capable of thinking

and asking. The formulation of relevant questions may be more

important than the answers.


A full discussion of this subject requires much more space than

I want to fill, so let me highlight key concepts:


(1) Information security as one task, both offensive and defensive,

of the intelligence community sanctions breaking foreign laws

while prohibiting similar activities on American soil. But simple

distinctions of "foreign" and "domestic" no longer hold. The convergence

of enabling technologies of intrusion, interception, and

panoptic reach, combined with a sense of urgency about the counterterror

imperative and a clear mandate from our leaders to do everything

possible to defeat an amorphous non-state entity defined by

behaviors rather than boundaries, borders, or even a clear ideological

allegiance, has created an ominous but invisible set of conditions

that undermine the previous cornerstones of law, ethics, and

even religious traditions.


(2) Identity is a function of boundaries. An "individual self" defined

by a boundary around biological processes and the complex of

energy and information radiated by those processes is undermined

by the erosion of those boundaries by the use of connective technologies.

The "individual self" we take for granted emerged a few

hundred years ago from a cultural shift and is a social construction

of reality. New technologies deconstruct it as we speak.


(3) Security, privacy, and intelligence gathering are corollaries

of individual and national identities and how they relate to one another.

Ethics is a description of "what works," i.e., what is "right"

for those identities at different levels of complexity and according

to the ultimate goal, whether defense of a community or integrity

of an individual.


(4) Security is a function of boundaries. Boundaries define the

"other" that threatens "us" and "us" is a felt experience of clan,

tribal, and societal kinship still. Prior to the emergence of writing

and the religions it facilitated, the "enemy" was the "Other." Ancient

societies defined the enemy as one who was not a member of

the tribe. After the emergence of writing, the enemy morphed and

became – in Christian scriptures, for example – that in ourselves

which must be fought, resisted, or transcended. This shift in consciousness

was a result of emergent technologies of writing. This

distinction is critical because security ethics exist in the tension

created by these conflicting definitions.


When the enemy is "within" the body politic, defined as an element

that threatens societal order and economic well-being, defined

no longer as a nation-state that threatens our political existence as a

nation state, then the distinction between criminals and terrorists or

dissenters and supporters of terrorism blurs. Accordingly the tools

considered appropriate to their identification and neutralization will

also blur.


We continue to speak of ethical norms in relationship to the cultural

past as if it is still the context of our beliefs and actions. We

speak of individuals as primary moral agents. We speak of nation

states as primary determinants of our collective identities. We

speak of the intelligence mission as if "we" who live inside one

nation are intercepting or penetrating or subverting the technical

processes and social dynamics of others who are also "inside" the

boundary of a nation state that defines them.

Those distinctions no longer hold.


(6) Current technologies make speaking of interception obsolete.

Our technologies constitute the physical framework, and software

and informational contexts, of a pan-global society. Boundaries between

elements of the network, between the networks that make up

the network, that is, are arbitrary and porous. We live in a world

literally without walls. Every attribute of a process or structure that

broadcasts or transmits information about itself by any physical or

electromagnetic means can be detected, often at the source. Often

enough, those who built the system in the first place engineer

information to come to them. "Here" and "there" are distinctions

without a difference.


(7)What if that technology is reverse engineered and used against

Americans in a way thanmight be said to violate the Fourth Amendment,

for example? TheMoebius Strip nature of life in a networked

world guarantees that unintended consequences must find their way

back to the hands (and minds) that made them. In the same way,

the idea of "blowback" from disinformation operations conducted

in other countries is obsolete: all stories in all publications flow

into the single information waters in which we live.


(8) Identity at a fundamental level is transformed. Digital identities

can be appropriated, yes, but more than that, we can invent

them on the fly and determine at the moment of action or execution

to which matrix we are related as a node in the network. Our

identities exist as potentialities made actual by our intention at the

moment of action. They are the equivalent of quantum states, fixed

only when expressed. Identity in relationship to security then becomes a matter of

observation and not assertion. Only multi-level observation penetrates

the skin sufficiently to reach the meta-level determined by

actions which may support or contradict identity-assertions.


(9) Computer scientist Langdon Winner wrote, "To invent a new

technology requires society to invent the kinds of people who will

use it, with new practices, relationships and identities supplanting

the old." [21] In case after case, the move to computerize and digitize

means many preexisting cultural forms have suddenly gone

liquid, losing their former shape as they are retailored for computerized

expression. As new patterns solidify, both useful artifacts

and the texture of human relations that surround them are often

much different from what existed previously.


This insight has implications for security and ethics. As boundaries

go liquid, the task of defining appropriate behaviors in relationship

to moral norms becomes difficult because the phrase

"moral norms" is a metaphor for the context that is generally invisible

to members of a society but not to sophisticated computer

professionals, an elite sanctioned to manipulate those underlying

norms on behalf of ends considered important enough to justify a

variety of means to achieve them.




Computer professionals exercise an implicit, de facto thought leadership

because they create structures that bind and inform society

and civilization. They create frames of human behavior that determine

how we think about ourselves as possibilities for action. Their

real implicit charge is not "to defend and protect a nation" but to

stabilize a world.


On whose behalf are they acting? Who do they serve? To what

end? On the level of the data themselves, the indeterminate but

ultimate destination of the data and how they are aggregated to create

an image of reality is lost unless the identity of the data and

the people securing them are tracked precisely. In effect, people

become instantiations of data because only data are meaningful in

this context. Yet ethics posits "individual" human beings as the ultimate

value in the universe, even as those "individuals" vanish like

the grin of the Cheshire cat in the process.


In short: what's a guy or gal to do?


This process has happened before and will happen again. In the

past, however, as Alfred North Whitehead said 4, such processes

have often all but wrecked the societies in which they occurred.

The dire possibility of societal disintegration elevates the moral responsibility

of the security and intelligence communities to a higher

level. Linked in cooperative activity, they are responsible for maintaining

social and global order at a level of understanding far beyond

that formulated in the past by any one nation. These communities

in the aggregate constitute a global community of practitioners

who share an ethos and modalities of operation not available

to ordinary citizens; they have thereby created for themselves an

intrinsic vocation or calling to maintain global order in a way that

is consistent with the ethical norms and moral order articulated

by the great cultural traditions even as those traditions are also

transformed by diverse technologies—and even though they and we

recognize that in practice that moral order and those ethical norms

are often violated as a matter of practice.


Managing these concerns is quite a challenge. As Machiavelli

said in The Prince during an equally transformational era:

". . .there is nothingmore difficult to take in hand, more

perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success,

than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order

of things."