Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Notes From The Prayer Warrior | Towering Tokyo »

Monday, December 4, 2006

Ethically Challenged

posted by on December 4 at 13:37 PM

Usually, I love the Ethicist. His pithy, pun-filled responses to readers’ ethical questions are typically right-on. However, this Sunday’s column about child pornography was a total head-scratcher.

Here’s the ethical dilemma: An Internet technician found a trove of what appeared to be child pornography (“young children—clearly less than 18, maybe early teens”) on his boss’s work computer. He asks, “Must I call the police? I think so, but I need my job.”

Cohen’s perplexing response: Since the situation is “fraught with uncertainty” (e.g., the porn might depict really, really young-looking adults; or the boss might not have paid (!) for the images, making his possession of them somehow more ethical), the technician should look the other way. Basically, Cohen’s argument is that if he turned his boss in, the boss could face icky repercussions.

Even if your boss were acquitted of criminal charges, the accusation itself imperils his job, his reputation and the company. If convicted, he faces years in prison. […]

Since you have no reason to believe your boss has had improper contact with children, you should not subject him to such ferocious repercussions for looking at forbidden pictures. […]

Your best recourse? Alas, silence.

Alas for whom, exactly? The reason our society has “ferocious repercussions” for looking at “forbidden pictures” of adults having sex with children is that the production and distribution of such images victimizes children (and promotes children’s victimization, by creating a market for it). If we aren’t talking about child porn, he hasn’t done anything illegal. Yes, porn charges would damage the boss’s reputation, but… If we are talking about child porn, the ethical obligation is to the children being victimized, not the boss’s reputation.

RSS icon Comments


i'm guessing a certain someone has a vast collection of images of young children on their computer. empathy is a great implicator.

Posted by seattle98104 | December 4, 2006 1:41 PM

Repeat after me… Supply does not create a market. Demand creates a market. (Illegal or otherwise.)

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | December 4, 2006 1:46 PM

i'm with you, erica. that's effed up.

Posted by gforce | December 4, 2006 1:46 PM

i thought the ethical obligation was to keep people in wheelchairs off of express busses.

Posted by O RLY | December 4, 2006 1:50 PM


You must have caught the recent Desperate Housewives storyline where Lynette gratuitously ruined her new neighbor’s life, incited a mini-riot, got him fired from his job and caused his sister to die of a stress related heart attack all because she broke into his house and found some pictures of boys in swimsuits. He was a youth swim coach and she assumed he was a pedophile then got the whole neighborhood worked up into a frenzy about it.

Now, the writers took the easy way out and revealed that he really was a pedophile, but what if he wasn’t? I’ve seen some 20 year old college students that look 14. Shouldn’t we give most people the benefit of the doubt and stop spying and getting caught up in the US Culture of Fear and Hysteria?

Posted by Andrew | December 4, 2006 1:56 PM

You're both wrong, Erica. Clearly, the ethical thing to do is mention the company's policy on Internet usage and then mention how much your wife has been wanting to see Hawaii.

Posted by Gitai | December 4, 2006 1:57 PM

Komrade Kriminal, we should all be fearful and suspicious of our neighbors. Get with it. Or else, Freedom Hater.

Posted by Solzhenitsyn | December 4, 2006 2:00 PM

Is this, like, because of the supposed difference (which I've never really understood) between "morals" and "ethics"? i.e., one may have a moral obligation to report the boss, yet an ethical duty to keep silent?

Posted by headscratcher | December 4, 2006 2:08 PM


No. There is no overt evidence of wrongdoing, so the ethicist is saying that we should give the boss the benefit of the doubt and not ruin his life. Morals are not involved since there is no clear evidence that morals have been violated. The company's internet policy is another, separate issue.

Posted by Andrew | December 4, 2006 2:23 PM

6 is funny. And true.

But seriously, this isn't that hard. The easiest solution is to report that he is storing pornography on his *work* computer in the first place. There aren't many corporate environments that would be ok with that, and that alone should be enough to get the wheels of the machine moving.

If it happens to be underage kids as well then the employer can make that determination and choose the appropriate course of action. Either way they should be in the position to make or not make accusations and include authorities. They're better suited to handle the possible liability if it turns out to be false. After all. They have a legal dept. You don't have shit. Not a hard call if it were me.

btw, your link is invalid.

Posted by charles | December 4, 2006 2:27 PM

People. Honestly. The only reason to have porn on your work computer as the president of a company is that:

1. You work for a porn company.
2. You work for a porn company.
3. You work for a porn company.

It's entirely possible that S.M.N. is a mandated reporter - here in the U.S., when photo developers find pics of kids in compromising situations, they're required to call the police.

Lord. I'll never think of Randy Cohen as anything but a creepy-ass pedophile again.

Posted by jtroop | December 4, 2006 2:56 PM

Here's a link that works.

I had to go find the column before commenting, because it wasn't at all clear from Erica's summary what sort of porn was under discussion.

Having read the letter (no doubt edited for length), it seems that a part of the problem here is that the writer has clearly used the term "children" to describe post-pubescent people who may or may not be minors.

What that means, and I think Dan "teens are teh hott" Savage would back me up here, is that the boss in question is not a pedophile.

It also suggests that the porn-discovering computer technician isn't very familiar with internet porn. Or with the habits of professionals who have doors on their offices, for that matter.

And then there's the question of whether or not it's ethical for a worker to go poking around in the private directories of other employees, no? This seems to me like a rather important bit of professional ethics for a computer technician, so why wasn't that addressed in the column?

The Ethicist made the right call, here, I think, though not for the right reasons.

Posted by robotslave | December 4, 2006 3:03 PM

I think the phrase that sums it up is "clearly less than 18." Sounds like he knows for certain that it is not adult porn involving consenting adults. Child porn is illegal and very wrong. If he is worried about his job, what happens when he keeps his mouth shut it comes up later... cover-ups often implicate everyone involved, and since he has seen it, he is, unfortunately, now involved. I imagine the company he works for would not likely side with a child-porn collector over a whistle-blower. Unless he works for the government... Or big oil.

Posted by do the right thing | December 4, 2006 3:08 PM

To assume a devil's advocate position: There are ethical considerations involved in snitching, too, although it seems more supportable if you call it "whistle-blowing."

If having questionable content on one's hard-drive is to be the new default reputation-destroying crime we can expect to see lots of people being charged with this very soon. Since even the accusation of pedophilia is essentially damning and since almost nobody with a computer is completely aware of everything that's on their hard drive (given that we live in a time when programs routinely download themselves into our systems and begin doing their work, which is very often of questionable legality, behind the scenes of normal operations) this could be a method of blackmail and political revenge that would've made J. Edgar Hoover salivate. Hell, you wouldn't even have to break in to plant the evidence -- it could be done remotely. Back in Hoover's day they would've had to go to all the trouble of acquiring incriminating photos of somebody to smear them -- this is much easier.

Not to say that's the case here, but I just wanted to point out that there are potential ethical downsides to making it everybody's duty to police their neighbor's activities in this way. Since almost nobody is going to even want to appear to be standing up for child pornography, it seems inevitable that any number of means could be devised to circumscribe civil liberties in the name of catching perverts. And, as we're seeing more and more, once civil liberties have been cast aside in the name of protecting us from some grave, pressing danger they can be very difficult to regain.

Posted by flamingbanjo | December 4, 2006 3:31 PM

do the right thing:

the phrase is not "clearly less than 18," the phrase is "clearly less than 18, maybe early teens."

I'd say that if a person can't tell if a Post-Pubescent Naked Person is 13 or 17, then that person doesn't know the PPNP is under 18, either.

Oh, and incidentally, I've tried to keep any assumptions I may have about the gender of the people and PPNPs out of the discussion. Are you assuming the porn-discoverer is a man, or is that just the "generic third-person masculine" you're using?

Posted by robotslave | December 4, 2006 3:34 PM

The Ethicist is wrong in this case. Or at least probably wrong.

His major gripe is that the tech has no proof that the porn is of minors, and therefore shouldn't ruin the career/reputation of the boss. That is a legit viewpoint. On the other hand, the tech clearly believes the porn IS of minors. While I agree it is possible that the tech could be wrong, and that the "minors" are really very young looking adults, we are just speculating.

So really, it comes down to two opposing obligations: (A) not ruining the boss's career without adequate proof, and (B) reporting child pornography.

If the porn was everyday run of the mill porn, then the tech should shut the fuck up. However, since the tech seems pretty certain that it is CHILD porn, then the duty to report it supercedes the duty to mind their own business. It isn't up to the tech to determine absolute proof. That is the job of the police, who hopefully are professional enough not to ruin the boss's reputation without a proper investigation.

BTW, this is exactly one of the reasons most companies forbid any sort of porn on company computers, legal or otherwise. No doubt the company would rather avoid all this too.

Posted by SDA in SEA | December 4, 2006 3:46 PM

hmmm... not enough information, so I would have to disagree and go with Cohen's advice... do nothing (or do something, but on a smaller scale that would let the user know "those pictures ain't cool with me". Maybe the tech could just delete the pictures (with or without backup) under the guise of “no non-work related activities on a company machine.” Techs do that with games everyday… a clear violation of company policy, but no one gets fired or makes a federal case out of it.

It does bother me that some of the photos look "of age" and the others "young". To me that means there could be some legal age models showing a wild hairy bush and some models with trim or just completely shaved. If that tech had not seen American made porno for the last 10 or 15 years (a possible thing), then seeing a 19 year old naked, without pubes, in a sexual act, would be shocking. That tech could be completely oblivious that EVERYONE in the cool, men and women, go in for the short trimmed/shaved/waxed-off pubes these days.

Posted by PHENICS | December 4, 2006 4:05 PM


I take it, then, that you don't have any problem with computer technicians who go snooping around in the private folders of other employees?

There are, of course, other options available to the porn-discoverer, and The Ethicist's suggestion that it's either shut up or go to the cops is pernicious.

The Ethicist managed to find an expert in kiddie porn. Why can't the porn-discoverer do the same? Just show a few of the photos in question to an expert first, and ask "is this child pornography, or isn't it?" Or how about hiring a private detective to figure it out?

Posted by robotslave | December 4, 2006 4:20 PM

If the tech is not capable of telling whether or not they're minors AND his company has a policy about internet use/porn, he *should* report it to his supervisor and/or the police and let it go from there. By saying nothing he is being complicit, if not tacitly approving.

This reminds me of the guys who talk/brag/joke about taking advantage of women who are too drunk or fucked up to consent to sex.

Posted by dewsterling | December 4, 2006 4:22 PM

Andrew, I was very irritated by the pedophile story line in "Desparate Housewives". I thought Lynette was being a bitch, and I prefer to think that that would-be pedophile guy said what he did just to fuck with her. All he said was that now that his sister was dead, he didn't have to watch himself. That can mean anything.

(Sorry to go on about Desparate Housewives, but that storyline REALLY bothered me, and it's one of the few TV shows I make a point of watching. )

As far as the ethicist goes, that is a tough one. I think the person should definitely be confronted about it, either directly (why's this on your computer?) or indirectly (the oblique statement about the corporate policy) If the answer is not satisfactory, then the authorities should be bought in. After all, isn't it possible that the pics could have been planted? I work for a company that had a huge amount of layoffs. Within a few weeks of that event, the remaining employees started receiving incredibly graphic porn spam of every imaginable variety, and there were a few incidents where people hacked into our network.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay | December 4, 2006 4:33 PM

there is no such thing as a private employee file on a computer provided by the employer. It isn't you computer and you don't have reasonable expectation to keep "private" files on a corporate resource. read your company's computing policy, it most likely explicitly states that you do not have such a right and by signing your contract when you were hired you agreed to abide by all company policies. people need to understand that if your employer wants to read every file on your computer, they can. and some do. ever hear of network software that analyzes image files on any computer connected to the network? If the image contains enough pixels that match the common hex values for flesh tones they'll flag your machine as having a possible pron stash?

the tech is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the machine and the IT department as a whole is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the network. That means absolutely everything on your machine is subject to scrutiny. Nothing should be on your computer or in your email that you wouldn't want displayed on a plasma screen in the lobby.

Since even the accusation of pedophilia is essentially damning and since almost nobody with a computer is completely aware of everything that's on their hard drive (given that we live in a time when programs routinely download themselves into our systems and begin doing their work, which is very often of questionable legality, behind the scenes of normal operations) this could be a method of blackmail and political revenge
You're responsible for your computer. You are aboslutely right that someone could blackmail you with something like that, so it's especially important that you are diligent with what you put on your computer. Most corporate machines are configured so that users need to login to use the computer, and any files that they can create/edit are usually restricted to directories only accessible by the user themselves and domain admins. It would be hard to "plant" such files on someone's computer unless someone is logged in as that user. This shouldn't happen unless the user is stupid and shares their password with co-workers, uses an easy to guess password, writes the password on a piece of paper taped to the back of their keyboard, or is just generally irresponsible with the security of their account.
If the porn was everyday run of the mill porn, then the tech should shut the fuck up. However, since the tech seems pretty certain that it is CHILD porn, then the duty to report it supercedes the duty to mind their own business. It isn't up to the tech to determine absolute proof. That is the job of the police, who hopefully are professional enough not to ruin the boss's reputation without a proper investigation.
Even if it IS just run of the mill type porn the tech should report it. If you're storing pron on your WORK COMPUTER you're a DUMB SHIT and deserve to get exposed. If it's run of the mill porn then the employer can put the user on probation, revoke computing rights, or possibly install filters to make sure that they're not SURFING PORN when they should be WORKING. They could fire them, too.

If it's CHILD PORN then the employer can CALL THE COPS and they can sort it out. The employer could theoretically be held responsible in court as well for failing to monitor what employees are doing with corporate resources.

This whole "ethical dilemma" is a totally stupid non-issue because it's usually clearly written out that you can't do that

No to mention that if the tech DIDN'T report it and some other tech later servicing the same machine found the files and DID report it, the original tech could get in trouble too. That's all under the assumption that it ISN'T child porn. If it turned out to be child porn, then the original tech could ALSO be fired/prosecuted for failing to report it. You can't blame the tech for reporting it. Blame the employee for being stupid.

and what does it matter what the tech's sex is? That's totally irrelevant.

Posted by charles | December 4, 2006 4:49 PM

Has anyone suggested blackmail yet? If so, I'm with them.

Posted by Komrade Kriminal | December 4, 2006 5:43 PM

I still think Gitai with comment #6 has the correct response. By bringing the issue to his boss directly, SNM doesn’t explode the situation into the mediasphere prematurely, ANd he can treat his boss as a person first, yet also bring to bear the socially normative pressures of shame, guilt, personal inconvenience, and fear, in order to correct the boss’s stupid behaviour.

(If the pics are sabotage, or real error, then that would probably come out between them with no public loss of face to anyone).

So many people want to exact the most extreme justice first, instead of learning how to do things more calmly with a bit of skill. I disagree with the Ethicist too, saying that silence is proper. That’s bullshit. There is a serious wrong there, and the precise amount of power to deal with it properly.

If the boss IS a sicko, then the technician should approach the boss with the purpose of -- together -- tracking down the child pornographers themselves, putting the boss on the right moral path, and in contact with police thereby scaring the bejeezus out of him, using the potential blackmail to ensure his cooperation. This route would probably result in the boss’s likely road-to-rehabilitation trip as well. If it doesn’t, or doesn’t look like it might, the technician should stipulate up front that the boss seek help (or else!), as well as get the trip to Hawaii on the boss’s personal dime. This will take guts to do.

Perhaps SNM doesn’t have what it takes to do this; in which case he should probably just meekly quit immediately, indicate to the boss that this is why he is quitting (using guilt to hopefully reform the boss), and then go seek a living as a land mine testing assistant.

RobotSlave: as a technician myself, I can attest there are quite a few ways to innocently encounter ostensibly “personal” data on a corporate laptop. Simple keyword searches for legit documents can reveal all sorts of things, for example. Once you have seen something, you can’t un-know it, and are henceforth implicated. And yes, the tech should find an expert first and determine if it’s the real (if terrible,) deal with the pics.

Charles is largely right on: Don’t be stupid. If Work bought it, don’t play with it. Keep it on a Flash drive or in gmail or something. (I don’t agree with Charles that you should just follow codes because they’re there, especially corporate codes. Think for yourself first. At what point is it best to relinquish your power to the authorities or the State?)

Posted by treacle | December 4, 2006 6:01 PM

Charles: It's important to distinguish between legal and ethical dilemmas. I agree that there probably isn't a legal dilemma here: The discoverer is almost certainly obligated to report it if he suspects it is child pron, and may well be under an obligation to the company that employs him to report any pron whatsoever.

However I find the "let the cops and courts sort it out" answers that I see here to be problematic because they more or less assume that the criminal justice system will automatically produce a fair and just resolution. If you've ever talked to somebody who lived in former communist bloc countries, for example, you'll find that many of them have very different views on one's ethical obligation to turn in a neighbor they suspect of wrongdoing.

Another example, closer to home: one especially fun aspect of the Drug War has been programs for school-age kids that encourage them to report their parents for possession. Now one could make a great case that a parent who was, say, addicted to meth was probably neglecting their kid and thus should be turned in, and thus in that instance such a program might produce a benefit. But there would also doubtless be cases where kids turned in their parents for relatively harmless infractions based on assurances from the nice officer who came to their school that it was the right thing to do and everything would work out fine in the end.

Until we live in a society of perfectly just laws and enforcement, there will be instances when following the letter of the law is not the most ethical option. There will be instances where one's legal obligations are quite clear but one's ethical considerations are not. So your statement that "the whole "ethical dilemma" is a totally stupid non-issue" sort of misses the point: A.) ethics and the law are two seperate (thought related) things and B.) the person was writing to an ethics advice column, not a legal advice column.

Posted by flamingbanjo | December 4, 2006 6:20 PM

Congradulations! You just won the lottery!
Go to your boss, tell him what you found on his computer, and ask him how much he's willing to pay for you to keep your mouth shut about it. A BIG promotion maybe. Or a sizeable lump-sum payment. And whenever you're running a little low on cash, send him a reminder. I guarantee he will lose his appetite for kiddie porn. Oh. And watch your back. Weasels like him have been known to cut
and run.

Posted by Raymond C Potts | December 4, 2006 8:14 PM


(I don’t agree with Charles that you should just follow codes because they’re there, especially corporate codes. Think for yourself first. At what point is it best to relinquish your power to the authorities or the State?)
I'm largely with you on that one, but when it comes to possible child porn i don't want anything to do with that period. it has trouble written all over it and i'd cover my ass because that sounds like an adventure that i'd rather not have, lol.

I guess that was the gist of what I was trying to get at: when it comes to (possible) child porn, I would want any decisions about what is done with it to be made by the appropriate people. In this case that is your boss's supervisor. I'm not necessarily meaning the cops when I say "report it". Going to your boss's boss, going to a network admin, whatever.

I am very much in agreement that the distinction between legal issues and ethical issues in this case are similar but distinct, but I think that ethically and legally exercising caution is paramount. That means raising the flag and getting the issue onto the appropriate desk. I'm not one to just surrender my own judgment to "the state" or "the corporation" but as I said, in this case I wouldn't want any part of it. :)

Posted by Charles | December 4, 2006 11:04 PM

Clint Eastwood had the greatest answer to this in _High Plains Drifter_. Asked what to do after all the killing, he says, "You live with it."

What the person should do is whatever he can so he can look at himself in the mirror every morning.

Posted by Queequeg | December 5, 2006 3:10 AM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).