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Jan Dvorak
Jan Dvorak

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Making the hard decisions in advance

What would you do if a known terrorist wanted to contract you/your company for a service you are offering? That is quiet a dramatic situation to be in and many would think that it is just something that happens in science fiction. Well this has actually happened at a company I worked at.

Ever since I started web development when I was little I was fascinated how with one small change I can change the background of a webpage and what can be done with it. When I was older I became a part of online communities and very much enjoyed being part of them. When my favorite community shut down my choice of a profession was influence by my desire to rebuild it. Hence from the very beginning web development for me was primarily about building platforms and communities.

As I progressed through my education among my many classes there were two that stood out in particular to me. First was critical thinking class that I took as an elective. It solidified my previous teaching and changed my view on many things in my life. Second was Ethics in IT. Ethics in IT presented me with many scenarios of what ifs that I could face in IT when it comes to my employment, copyrights, licensing and other uncomfortable issues. As an aspiring sci-fi writer this fueled my fantasy and with the rise of social media I saw many more challenges presenting itself.

Often in tech we think about the technical challenges and are often unprepared when an ethical or philosophical problem that appear before us. Even if one has strong political/ethical/philosophical grounding it can take us completely by surprise. Unprecedented situations happen, that is why many company have emergency plans, but they are often lacking when it comes to ethical, political and/or philosophical challenges.

Going back to my opening problem. What to do if a terrorist wants to use your service? Obviously say no and severe all contact as my employer did? It is the easiest and quickest solution, after all there were million of other problems that a startup has to deal with. This is where I believe a bit of strategy and macro view has to come into play. I personally believe that the company should have contacted the authorities to check if they want to have any interest in tracking the terrorist's activities or if another sort of action would be better. If the answer was affirmative and cleared through what ever lawful process it has to, I would at least double the price for the custom job the terrorist wanted and as long as it wasn't illegal or against the company policies kept on the job (with authorities tracking what is going on).

Now, obviously there are probably many holes in my thinking that you could drive trucks through (for example the entire privacy and security angle), but that is why I'm writing this (and hopefully many more future articles) to discuss these situations. One can make many scenarios and plans how to deal with them, one can create marvelous policies and philosophies, but only through contact with other opinions and critique can they be tempered. And also even if one has all of that, sometimes even if it goes against ones believes, it might be better to make another decision that is strategic and will lead to a better long-term outcome. After all no plan survives the contact with the enemy, but planning is still indispensable.

So why did I want to take more roundabout way of dealing with a terrorist who wants to use the company platform and services? First of all I didn't know exactly what the person's intention were, knowing that might have changed the approach completely. But more importantly if we deny service they are going to go elsewhere and maybe the service they find will not be as aware as we were or they will go underground making it even harder to track their activities. There are many other ifs and scenarios to discuss and they need to be considered (that is where guidance from authorities could have been helpful).

I think my employer's decision back then might have been a bit rash (but I haven't had all the information so it is hard to judge), but imagine a bit different scenario that it is you and your product/app and suddenly one day your phone explodes with notifications of people messaging you angrily, your mother calling your crying how could you have condone it (and you don't even know what "it" is), et. all. In that kind of heavy pressure situation quick action might be needed or you might feel it is needed, but usually reacting hastily and passionately will lead to mistakes and making things even worse.

This is where I want to return to the title of the article: "Making the hard decisions in advance" is the point of this discussion and what I hope is to be a regular series to discuss difficult scenarios with you so that many differing view points can be considered. Why? Knowledge is power. Even having just considered similar scenarios will arm you with ways that you can react to difficult situations that might come your way. With that you are less likely to panic and calmly react. My other hope is that it will help you to build your own philosophy/ethics or hone your existing codex which should arm you with an engine through which to easily consider things and be consistent. Finally if you are someone in a place of decision making it might be worth it to formulate plans on how to deal with likely scenarios and general responses. Better to agonize now then while under pressure of the moment. Hard time in a training field makes things easier on the battle field.

I'm not going to give you a list on how to make the hard decisions today so that in the future you can just return to it and have a done solution ready to go. The world is not as simple as programming is. Another problem is that your decision/plan will have to change with the passage of time as things change in your life/company.

Discussion scenario

Now after that lengthy intro, let's get into the main thing here. I will present a scenario with some known variables. Think about what you would do and let us know. Also feel free to challenge other people's (or mine) assertions and solutions if you find them lacking.
Now keep in mind that we won't find an agreement on a solution, most likely quiet the opposite. What is the most important part is to test your ideas and come to a conclusion that you are comfortable with.

A person who is known to have engaged in terrorist activity want to contract you/your company for a custom service you are offering (or use your platform/app).

Known variable:

  • The person's use of the service is not illegal nor is it at this moment directed towards any illegal activities.
  • You know that the person is a terrorist as they appeared in the press (and for the sake of our discussion let's assume that we have confirm the identity).


Tell us about a hard decision that you had to make. More props to you if it was something that you had prepared for. If you have written articles about it link them for us.

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