CHANGING CONTEXTS OF SECURITY
AND ETHICS: YOU CAN'T HAVE ONE
WITHOUT THE OTHER
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."
 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
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."  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