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Ethics and Reverse Engineering

Added09/05/1998

Updated12/16/2015

Author(s) John L. Wallberg
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Year 1998
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English

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Interviews from Ethics and Reverse Engineering

Interview 1, the Supervisor

1. Is anything illegal or unethical happening in this scenario?
This is unethical. Company P is representing itself as Company C to the computer system performing maintenance. If problems were to develop with the Company P drive, it would be probable that the Computer System Support at the Customer Company would telephone the Company C for help or make a complaint. In many cases the drives are not visible to the user, so if the computer tells the user the drive is from Company C then the user will believe it. In my opinion, Company P is representing itself as Company C -- that is clearly unethical.
2. If you found yourself in a similar situation, what would you do?
This company has an ethics office and a legal department. In addition to consulting them, I would also talk to my manager and colleagues. All managers at all levels are subject to the strict ethics policy. CEO or no CEO, unethical behavior is not tolerated.
3. Do you feel comfortable with that course of action?
The company ethics policy has proven extremely useful here. When I consider some problems at other companies (e.g., bribery, racism, dishonest billing practices and poor customer service.), I know that here these problems are explicitly defined as unacceptable and to my knowledge have not happened here without severe consequences. Thus I would follow the ethical policy since in the long term it serves the both company's and the customers' best interest.
4. What is your company's policy on reverse engineering?
Reverse engineering is used to investigate a competitor's product and learn about it so that we can design and market a superior product. Care is taken not to copy the circuits or knowingly infringe competitors patents.
5. How realistic is this scenario? Have you encountered something similar where you were unsure of what was the 'right thing to do?'
This is realistic. I have only experienced the reverse engineering part of this scenario.

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Interview 2, the New Employee

1. Is anything illegal or unethical happening in this scenario?
I really am not sure. I don't know a lot about the legality. I assume there are strict rules about this type of business. P justifying its actions based upon anti-trust does not hold water because if they felt that way they should have taken it up with the justice department first. I think the crux of the legal issue is whether a "vendor id" is proprietary. This I don't know.
2. If you found yourself in a similar situation, what would you do?
I would first check with my management ladder, for I am but a lonely man on the bottom! I know that my company has extensive legal support to answer these types of questions and I would not hesitate to get expert advice if I was at all unsure. Under no scenario would it be worth, for the company, taking the risk of acting illegally or unethically.
3. Would you feel comfortable with this course of action? following that methodology?
I have never had any formal education on engineering ethics. It is what I would feel comfortable with.
4. What is your company's policy on reverse engineering?
I believe it is acceptable to use reverse engineering. But using what we have found is illegal.
5. How realistic is this scenario? Have you encountered something similar where you were unsure of what was the 'right thing to do?'
I have encountered a similar situation and relied upon my manager's knowledge of the situation to decide if it was legal and ethical. Ultimately, I did not use any of the information I found to so I don't think I have been anywhere near the gray area.

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Interview 3, the Undergraduate

1. Is anything illegal or unethical happening in this scenario?
While I am not sure about the exact legality of this situation, there is definitely an ethical conflict. P's argument is completely bogus. They are whining that C's practice of developing a drive is partial to their own disks. They claim that it is monopolistic. That would imply that C already "owns" the market, and that the only way for P to get into the game is to make media. There is nothing stopping P from making their own drives, which would be partial to their own disks, thus providing them with the same benefits. They could then compete by making their drives cheaper to use by selling cheaper disks. If this is not an option for them, they should license the ID number to some other arrangement so to be completely C-endorsed.
2. If you found yourself in a similar situation, what would you do?
I guess I would turn to my lawyer, if the situation was in one of commerce like this. If it turns out to be a judgment call (rather than a legal issue), I guess I would look at the situation a lot more closely. First, I would see if there is a way to work around this with the other company. Could I afford to go to battle with the other company in the marketplace? Is this something worth that kind of all-out commitment? Are there alliances I can make elsewhere to squash the competition? Should I sell something else instead?
3. Would you feel comfortable with that course of action?
I guess it is a textbook answer, but it is probably the only path to take.
4. What is your company's policy on reverse engineering?
This question was not applicable, as the undergraduate was not employed in a software or hardware development position.
5. How realistic is this scenario? Have you encountered something similar where you were unsure of what was the 'right thing to do?'
This scenario is completely realistic. As computers become more prevalent, the distinction between what is own able is going to get more and more difficult. Is an interface, or a look, property, thus subject to copyrights, etc.? If something is invented that becomes an industry standard (CD-ROMs), can the media still remain under laws that make it monopolistic? One solution to this same type of problem was developed by the pharmaceutical industry. After 7 years of an exclusive patent for a drug, it becomes open to anybody else who wants to make it. Something similar may happen in the computer industry...

 

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Cite this page: "Interviews from Ethics and Reverse Engineering" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/10/2006 OEC Accessed: Friday, July 12, 2019 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/revintro/revint.aspx>