Online ethics are important because they emphasize the need to apply the same good standards of ethical behavior in both the digital and physical world. Unethical behavior online may at a minimum expose a person to a greater risk of becoming a cybercrime victim. At worst, unethical behavior online may be a felony level crime under U.S. law. In either case, it is important to maintain good ethical standards online.
The rise of “hacktivists” who claim legitimacy based on their motivation for attacking a system raises the larger issue of online ethics. From a purely U.S. legal standpoint, the unauthorized access of another parties computer is a crime regardless of the motivation for the trespass. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is the main U.S. federal law covering computer related crimes. All 50 U.S. states now also have some form of computer crime law. The CFAA criminalizes any unauthorized hacking of a computer that causes “natural and foreseeable” damage or loss. The U.S. law recognizes that breaking into a person’s digital home, no matter the motivation, is a crime. It is the equivalent of breaking into their physical home. In the physical world we refer to people as burglars, but in the digital world we sometimes let the same people hide behind the sanitized word “hacker”. This frequently grants a false note of legitimacy to behavior that is in fact unethical or even criminal.
Looking beyond just hacking, but examining other behavior online, there remains a question about why people seem to view ethical behavior differently on the Internet than in the physical world? In the recent Norton Cybercrime Human Impact Report, many people reported engaging in unethical behavior online. The types of behavior ranged from using false identities to downloading pirated music or movies. Despite the fact that engaging in unethical behavior online raises the likelihood of becoming a cybercrime victim, people are still willing to engage in such behavior without considering the harmful impact.
Cybercriminals often target individuals that are less likely to report their concerns to police. A pirated song might contain a virus that steals a bank account password, but any victim would first need to admit they had downloaded pirated music. Engaging in unethical behavior online can be not only a criminal offense but exposes a person to greater risk of becoming a victim. Digital property rights should be respected in the same way that property rights are respected in the physical world. Its not just the correct legal choice, it is also the best way to stay safe online.