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Petraeus and E-Government Ethics

  • AuthorIsabel Eva Bohrer
  • Published Thursday, January 17th, 2013
  • Comments0

“In the past, a spymaster might have placed a flowerpot with a red flag on his balcony or drawn a mark on page 20 of his mistress’s newspaper” wrote Nicole Perlroth in a recent New York Times article. “Instead, Mr. Petraeus used Gmail. And he got caught.”

On November 9, 2012, David H. Petraeus resigned as the Director of the CIA upon the discovery of his extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. The specifics of the Gmail account Petraeus used to communicate with Broadwell have been thoroughly investigated. But the Petraeus scandal raises much larger questions pertaining to digital government. Perlroth’s article, for example, asks: “If David H. Petraeus couldn’t keep his affair from prying eyes as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, then how is the average American to keep a secret?” What kinds of privacy laws exist in relation to digital government? Is such digital surveillance ethical? What kinds of ethical responsibilities do political or military leaders have to conserve the safety of their country’s citizens?

Before delving into these questions, it is worth defining the term “e-government.” “There is some debate of what exactly e-government is,” says Frank Bannister, an associate professor researching electronic government at Trinity College Dublin. “One definition is the use of the Internet and more specifically the World-wide Web to deliver government information and public services. A wider definition is that it is encompasses all use of ICT [information and communication technology] by governments and public administration in the business of government and public service delivery,” Bannister explains.

In his book Fundamental of Development Administration, political theorist Jeong Chun Hai says that e-government (also known as “e-gov,” “digital government,” “online government” or “connected government”) can take the form of digital interactions between the government and its citizens (G2C), the government and businesses (G2B), the government and employees (G2E), the government and government agencies (G2G), as well as citizens to government (C2G).

Given Petraeus’ former position at the C.I.A., one could say that his case is ethically particularly complex, as it affects all of the above digital interactions. But even for the ordinary citizen, there are intricate ethical issues at stake. “Among the most important [ethical issues associated with digital government] are transparency, access, equity and reliability,” said Dr. Stuart W. Shulman, a political science professor and Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Information Technology & Politics at the University of Massachusetts.

One of the first memorandums that Obama signed after being elected president was the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on Transparency and Open Government. This document affirmed that government services, including public websites such as and, would help increase transparency and aid citizen participation. Given his commitment to improving the government’s technology, Obama even came to be called the nation’s first “tech president.”

But it is cases like Petraeus’ that backfire and actually help make digital surveillance more transparent to the general public. After his scandal, news sources started revealing the details on how ordinary internet users can keep their information private (or at least try to do so). For example, did you know that saving clandestine messages in a drafts folder of a joint email account is not “secret”? In fact, chances are, once you have submitted any kind of information via a web browser, the government can find it.

But not only that – Wired reports that under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the government can access e-mail that’s more than 6 months old without a warrant from a judge. Apple, Amazon, the ACLU, Facebook, Google and Twitter have all joined the protest against such ageing privacy laws, but so far, to no avail. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) , the United Nations, and country-specific organizations like the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) all have put forth guidelines on digital government. But in the end, they are only guidelines and have little to say.

Instead of granting its citizens access to equitable e-government services, the U.S. government appears more committed to accessing citizens’ online information. Instead of providing services such as online systems for voting on imminent issues affecting citizens’ daily lives, dollars are spent so that the Department of Homeland Security can monitor social networks for the word “social media.”

In the United States, the National Broadband Plan is seeking to make technology accessible to everyone. Yet both between and within countries worldwide, a massive digital divide continues to exist, according to Shulman. Bannister argues that “there is a school of thought that says that the digital divide is a new ‘ethical’ issue.” Countries such as the U.K. and Denmark, for example, have announced and implemented “digital by default” policies for e-government. Rachel Neaman of The Guardian outlines numerous benefits: “For example, monitoring social media channels generates valuable insight into what citizens really think. Holding webchats and inviting online comment actively engages people in debate. Crowdsourcing ideas and polling views contributes to policy making. And consulting and asking for input can influence legislation – all the stuff of a modern democratic government.”

However, such “digital by default” policies can “[raise] questions about equality of treatment for marginal groups,” Bannister explains. “This is both a hardware/networks issue and an information literacy issue,” Shulman says. Those who don’t have, or don’t know how to use technology, are clearly at a disadvantage. Digital literacy and other technical skills would need to be promoted, so that equal conditions to vote, stay informed, and perform other government-related actions are equal to all.

As a consequence, organizations like the United Nations are helping to research and implement e-government initiatives in Africa, for example. “E-government is a quick way for governments with limited infrastructure to catch up with the rest of the world in deployment of services, “ said Douglas Woolley, group executive at the Technology Group at Business Connexion, a South African information technology company. “We need this [e-government] because it alleviates an administrative burden and helps deal with fraud and corruption,” he added. If e-government does in fact reduce corruption, one might even say that governments have an ethical responsibility to implement it.

John-Mary Kauzya, chief of the Governance and Public Administration Branch of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, argues that: “It is quite another thing to successfully implement e-government,” he says. Infrastructure and lack of technology are undoubtedly issues, both in Africa and beyond. But they are “the easy part,” the United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN) reports. “If a government has not reached the [requisite] level of commitment to effectiveness, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability, it would not have any incentive to invest in the development of e-government,” said Kauzya.

“Solutions to ethical problems have to be in appropriate and properly policed legislation, international standards, effective regulatory and citizen appeal mechanisms and constant vigilance,” says Bannister. “These questions are deeply political and can only be resolved by action in the political sphere.” He further explains that while some governments have established oversight bodies, others have parliamentary committees (or the equivalent). Quite a number of governments make use of legislation, such as data protection acts. “My own view is that you need a body that is independent and has the authority to take effective action when it detects unethical behaviour,” Bannister says.

Post-Petraeus, we can question whether basic requisites like effectiveness, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability are guaranteed in America’s democracy. If, or when they are, e-government will come in more than handy. “If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the same price must be paid for ethical behavior by the state,” Bannister says.

In the meantime, Obama has just tapped counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to succeed Petraeus. TIME magazine’s Robert B. Baer writes that under Brennan, the CIA won’t use traditional espionage anymore. “In Brennan’s world, there’s no profit or sense going back to the old ways.”  In coming months we will see how the era of digital government effects the CIA and other agencies.

Learn more about Isabel Eva Bohrer at

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