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 inform contemporary 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 and Martian 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.”

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