Global Ethics Corner: Privacy, Ethics, and "News of the World"

Jul 22, 2011

Outrage over "News of the World's" use of phone hacking raises the question: when is hacking acceptable? Phone surveillance is a common tool for national security. Where do you draw the line?

When does hacking violate privacy? When is phone surveillance justifiable? Is it ever ethical?

When journalists hack into phones, they violate laws and invade privacy.

The public was outraged and laws were broken when the British newspaper, News of the World, tapped into the voice mail of a 13-year-old murder victim, Milly Dowler. Subsequently, several staff members were jailed, the chief executive was arrested, and the newspaper closed.

However, the press isn't just sensational. It is often called the fourth branch of government, keeping everyone honest. The press frequently uncovers corruption in public and private sectors, and is seen as a bulwark of democracy and civil society.

Similarly, government phone hacking is useful to fight crime and terrorism, and is permissible within legal limits. Phone surveillance goes back to the early days of the FBI's fight against the Mafia. More recently in 2007, a bill passed allowing the National Security Agency to tap into American citizens' phones to investigate terrorism.

Whether it is newspapers or governments listening into private conversations, both make people uncomfortable. Why then are newspapers condemned?

Simply, one is legal and the other not. More nuanced, one is for news and the other for security. But, what if a journalist finds information about corruption or that saves lives? This also protects security.

What do you think? Are the legal and ethical issues around hacking the same? Should we condemn the invasion of privacy when it is about news, but condone it when it is both legally limited and about security? Where do you draw the line?

Adapted by William Vocke from a piece by Hui Liang

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Christopher Walker
Piper Caldwell
Ben Sutherland
Vince Alongi
Tim Earley
Death and Gravity
Ed Yourdon
Pete
Gholzer

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