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NLRB’s click to organize: Technological and ethical responsibility

November 12, 2015

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse

For clarity, I want to state that the scope of this post is solely about technological responsibility and the effects of technology choice.

On September 1st, the General Counsel for the NLRB issued Memorandum 15-08 which amounts to a go-ahead for “click to organize” authorizations. There are compelling implications that must remain inextricably bound to ethical responsibility. The NLRB’s actions, by virtue of Memorandum 15-08, are severely flawed and the proposed benefits do not even come close to outweighing the potential costs. There is no justification for the NLRB’s actions in this case. Why more rushing of an already rushed process? Just because we “can” surely does not mean we “should.” 

On a basic level, headers in emails can be manipulated, social media accounts can be hijacked (even with two-step or two-factor verification), and bogus accounts of many kinds can be created. That’s just for starters. For the NLRB’s self-prescribed process to be viable from the user point of view, we would all have to possess a deep understanding of security and authentication. As one might imagine, such knowledge is not generalizable. The NLRB’s decision to deploy technology that can be [relatively] easily abused amounts to ethical negligence. The electronic OK from the NLRB is not OK!

I do not believe the NLRB truly understands (or cares) about the technological implications of their actions, especially within the context of downstream enforcement of authentication standards. The NLRB seems to underestimate the capabilities of those who know just enough to be dangerous. It appears that the NLRB has blatantly disregarded mounds of research from behavioral, cognitive, psychological, and computer sciences that present well-documented behavioral patterns within the context of technology usage. It’s nice to use industry-standard security language to state how the process should work; however, one must consider the instances where hackers have busted through protections that were otherwise thought to be robust.

Hackers come in many flavors and make choices to use their knowledge for good or for evil (some of which is perceptual and ethically relative). Some hackers hack for fun and others hack with nefarious intent. Still others see hacking as a means to call out deadly hubris that provides users with a false sense of security by demonstrating weaknesses in “safe” systems. Finally, there are hackers for hire. As for amateurs, hacking methods and tools are frighteningly easy to access and enact.

The conversation is no longer about union vs. non-union, rather it is now about wielding more power than will be responsibly managed. The NLRB’s actions represent a move toward dehumanization via technology, creating diverse opportunities for an erosion of individual moral buffers (i.e., willingness to take an action that may be harmful to others due to an eroded sense of empathy). We must concede that behind every technology there are human users with lives, families, feelings, and shortcomings. 

I do not believe the NLRB will take the time or dedicate the necessary resources to guarantee the authenticity of each email, social media post, and electronic signature used [past tense] to authorize organization. Just think about workflows and personnel capabilities necessary to execute verification processes within the context of an already shortened timeline…not to mention increased administrative costs. Herein lies the great big giant Delta of systemic technological competence that, in theory, should be balanced against the power to make broad-sweeping rules.

If we are so inclined, we can go back in history to find instances where technologies have been leveraged in unethical ways to produce disastrous unintended consequences. History has also shown that unionization campaigns can get ugly. It’s about to get worse. From the technologist point of view, the implications of the NLRB’s actions represent [one of] my worst technology-facilitated nightmare(s). As a society, we already have scads of technological capabilities that we are somewhat unprepared for when considering the general state of digital literacy. (Note that I’m not referring to SMEs here, I’m referring to average users and those affected by the ever-widening digital divide.)

Think about it: thanks to technology, by the time an election has run its now shortened course, additional damage will have occurred (regardless of whether or not a union has been formed). Nobody will be served well; not employees, not organizations, and not even the unions. Everyone is going to lose.

The question behind the question is what will happen when (not if) exploitation occurs? Will we be wrapped up in endless litigation and other types of red-tape for years while employees and companies hang in limbo? Can you picture limbo?

Gee, what could possibly go wrong…

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