Fellow 2006 graduates of the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, I have a confession to make:
When I was a freshman, I had a torrid romance with a beautiful, Russian bride.
It started out innocent enough. I received this amazing, unsolicited e-mail from a young Russian woman, named Olga. She talked about her family, and her job, and what her hopes and dreams were. While I, instead of being immediately suspicious, convinced myself that she had simply found my e-mail address on one of the many personal profiles I had scattered about the internet. She was impressed with what I had to say… right?
I wrote her back. I played hard to get—nothing terribly personal—but asked a lot of specific questions, just to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. After three or four e-mails, we were madly in love.
Well… she was madly in love with me. I, instead, had quickly realized that she was really a bot—a spambot to be precise—simply trying to engage me in a vague, shotgun romance online, while asking for personal checking account numbers, to help pay for her visa and plane ticket to the U.S.
The final piece of evidence came when I replied to her after neglecting the “relationship” for several weeks, out of boredom. When Olga wrote back, her artificial intelligence script had apparently been reset. I ended up receiving the same e-mail that had started the whole sordid affair.
The story of Olga and I is not uncommon. There is an entire website devoted to revealing these charlatans called stop-scammers.com. I found Olga’s profile there, along with hundreds of other fake Russian brides.
Such circumstances bring up a slew of ethical questions, that we as the emerging experts in computing and information science must face—questions that do not have clear answers. You might say that Spamming should be illegal. But aren’t Spammers just clever entrepreneurs, simply capitalizing on your trust that your information is really private?
Then again some spam, like my example, is actually an attempt to commit fraud—an action that is patently illegal. Yet, some might argue that if you are stupid enough to fall for such a ploy, you deserve to lose your money. Now that’s a bit harsh, but so is the job climate in countries like Russia, where men and women resort to hacking and spamming, in order to feed their kids and pay the rent.
The ethics of the situation soon become relative. Throw in issues of government surveillance, and we find ourselves having an increasingly difficult time trying to distinguish who or what is good, and who or what is evil, in the world of computing and the internet.
Now, I’m not trying to be alarmist here, but what all of us have learned in a classroom, or taught ourselves, is more than enough to be dangerous. And this is where you must act with integrity and form a personal agenda, and goals, based on the question: What does being ethical mean to you?
Does it mean developing open source software, free to users? Does it mean pirating software, because you believe the retail costs are extortive? Does it mean working for a corporation, that tries to be everything for its customers, at the cost of its competitors? Does it mean posing as a Russian bride so that you can feed your family?
Asking myself such questions, reminded me of Google’s informal,
corporate motto: Don’t Be Evil.
Of course, we all hope that they are serious about their motto, considering the database of personal information, on each and every Internet search user that Google controls.
But really, as we leave the protective fold of RIT, and journey on to the proverbial “future,” we must think about our ethical position and how it relates to our careers.
Some of you have already accepted job offers. Some of you will be headed to grad school. And some of you will be going back home, to try to figure out what it is you really want to do with your life. But all of you, at some time or another, will be trying to decide which career path is the right one for you to take.
And as you make these difficult decisions and mature as students and citizens of this world, remember to be true to yourself, act with personal integrity, and do what you believe is best for you and those around you.
In three words: Don’t Be Evil.