The Ethical DBA?

Today’s posting is a re-blog of a post I wrote several years ago for another blog (that has since been discontinued). But I think the subject matter is important enough that it warrants re-blogging… So I touched it up and made a few changes here and there to make sure links still worked… and here it is…

Reading Stephen Wynkoop’s thoughts on a code of ethics for DBAs over at SSWUG recently got me to thinking. He brings up a lot of good points. His basic premise is that no code of ethical behavior for DBAs exists, but one could be useful. I think he is on to something here.

In fact, I liked his idea so much that I e-mailed him some of my thoughts that he shared with his readers. I will share the contents of that e-mail with you here:

“I applaud your notion of creating a DBA code of ethics. However, it is not going to be a very easy task to complete. The problem is one of degree. By that I mean, at what level should the ethical code be created? The approach taken by Google, for example, whose much-ballyhooed notion of “do no evil” is, in my opinion, worthless. I mean, who would disagree with “do no evil”? But what does that mean at the detailed level. For example, is it “evil” for Google to agree to censor its results in China in order to do business there? From the perspective of the free market, it might be perceived as such. From the perspective of the Google stockholder though, it might be viewed as “evil” not to try to expand its business into one of the world’s largest markets. So what is evil?

Okay, I hope I’ve made my point that a high-level ethical code is too nebulous to be useful. What next? Who can envision all of the potential uses for data and what might be done with it? And then, once done with this impossible task, who can correctly indicate what the ethical approach is in each situation? And wouldn’t the ethics of the situation differ (even slightly) based on who is observing? Yes, there would be clear-cut cases, such as the one your reader pointed out about tracking employee’s position by cell phone. But what about areas that are more gray? Once again, let me use Google as an example. They have announced their intention to digitize the world’s books to make it possible to search their contents. Is this ethical? To the many people out there who would like to be able to search for a book based on a phrase or portion of its content, this probably seems like the furthest thing from evil. But to many authors it seems like a copyright violation. Is this fair use? Who gets to decide? That may be easier than deciding if it is “ethical”?

In many cases, what is ethical can come down to a religious issue. But this makes it an individual issue. There is no global religion…  What is right for a Muslim is not necessarily right for a Christian, Jew, or Shintoist (to name but four of the world’s numerous religions). And then there are always the agnostics and atheists, who usually subscribe to a humanist ethical code… but not always. So no help there.

I laud your thinking, but remain skeptical on the practicality of the matter. Perhaps, at least at present, we are best served by government regulation – at least here in the good old US of A. When I see regulations like HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley I applaud – not because of all the work they generate, but because they seem (to me at least) to be written such that they make companies do what they should be doing anyway – if they were “ethical”.”

OK, so where does that leave us? I think most people would agree that a code of ethics would be helpful, but we need to set some guidelines on what those ethics would cover. A reader of one of my recent blog posts (Massive Data Sweep) posted a comment raising some of the pertinent issues. Things like personal ethics versus legality, whistleblowing, job security, and the like.

Perhaps a nice useful starting point is offered by the USENIX System Administrator’s Code of Ethics. Feel free to post your thoughts on this issue below. I think this is something that the profession will have to deal with soon, but it is not something that we’ve given much thought to yet.



I'm a strategist, researcher, and consultant with nearly three decades of experience in all facets of database systems development.
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One Response to The Ethical DBA?

  1. Etsuko says:

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you
    wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics
    to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this
    is excellent blog. A great read. I’ll certainly be

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