Imagine that you are an ethics consultant to a multinational company that makes
smartphones. You also make the operating system that the smartphones run.
You are based in the USA but your phones are used by tens of millions of people, across
every country in the world.
In the grips of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the government of the USA has
approached you to ask for help to access the phones of those who have died of the virus.
The government believes that the phones will help them to trace the contacts of those who
have spread the virus to others and therefore to minimise the further spread of the virus.
In response to this, civil rights groups are expressing concern about the fact that giving the
government a so-called back door key to access one phone in this way will allow the
government (and potentially hackers) to access every phone using this same system. They
argue there are serious privacy concerns.
The software architects point out that it is not possible to unlock only one phones in this
way, rather the change would have to be made so that all smartphones using the company’s
operating system could be accessed using this same method.
Meanwhile, users and lawyers in other countries are concerned that some governments
will use this newfound access to identity and persecute their critics and those who are
organising to expose human rights abuses by governments and by multinational
companies operating in their countries. You also happen to know that this very
smartphone company has been accused of human rights abuses in its own supply chain in
some of these countries.
The CEO has come to you to ask for your advice with two main questions (below). What
would you advise her in response to those questions?
1 What is the right thing for the company to do here? What would each of the three normative
theories we have covered in class (utilitarian, Kantian, and virtue ethics) have to say about the
push for governments to be able to unlock and access the data on phones in this way?
2. Consider the questions around government regulation we covered in Module 4. How would you
recommend the CEO should think in response to an advocate of the narrow view of business and
ethics who says that the smartphone company does not need to consider the ethics of this