Prometheus depicts at least one incident with significant implications regarding information privacy. At the beginning of the film, the human crew of the Prometheus is in cryogenic stasis for a two-year journey. This stasis puts the crew members in a sleep-like state in which they can still dream. While the crew is in this state, an apparently sentient android named David remains awake to monitor the ship. David takes advantage of the crew’s unconscious state and uses a feature of the stasis technology to view the crew’s dreams. In essence, he views their thoughts and memories without their knowledge. This “dream reading” sequence raises several ethical questions, both regarding the ethics of how the technology was used in the film and the broader implications of the underlying technology.
David’s use of the cryogenic pods to view the crew members’ dreams is ethically indefensible from almost any perspective. Analysis using social contract theory, Kantian ethics, and Utilitarianism all suggest that his behavior was morally wrong.
An individual has a limited right to privacy; they can reasonably expect that their private writings will remain private in the absence of some strong overriding need for the community to view them. A person’s memories and thoughts are far more private than even a diary, and can therefore expect to receive at least the same level of protection. When David watched Dr. Shaw’s dreams, he had no compelling justification for doing so. Therefore, David violated Dr. Shaw’s rights and his actions were morally wrong.
David viewed Dr. Shaw’s memories seemingly for his own personal amusement. In doing so, he treated her as a means to his own satisfaction with no respect for her personal independence. This violates the second formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, so David’s action was wrong.
David does not appear to derive any practical benefit from learning about Dr. Shaw’s childhood. The only positive result of his action appears to be that he finds it amusing to reveal to Dr. Shaw that he knew about her past. When Dr. Shaw finds out about David’s action, she becomes extremely upset, feeling that her privacy was invaded. The stress placed on Dr. Shaw was much greater than the minor pleasure David derived from the incident, so David’s action was wrong.
Some additional issues regarding information privacy arise from the fact that the crew of the Prometheus is kept under constant surveillance when not on board the ship. This surveillance includes continuous audio recording and recording of the video feed from every crewmember’s suit.
Unlike David’s behavior toward the sleeping crew, the recording technology in this film is used responsibly. Crew members are aware they are being recorded, and the recordings have a legitimate purpose in documenting the crew’s scientific mission.
An individual’s right to privacy does not apply in cases where the individual voluntarily allows themselves to be recorded. The crew members are clearly aware that they are being recorded when outside the ship and raise no objections. Recording is limited to outside of the ship and is used for legitimate documentary and logistic purposes. Crew members are left alone in their own private quarters. Recording and monitoring of the crew is entirely ethical in this situation.
This situation can be analyzed in the context of the First Formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative by forming the following hypothetical rule: “Monitoring and recording others is acceptable as long as you have their permission.” If generalized to the rest of the world, this does not appear to create any logical contradiction: recording someone with their permission in no way dissuades people from granting permission to be recorded. As this rule is logically sound, it is consistent with the Categorical Imperative. The recording is therefore ethical.
Monitoring the crew members allows the supervisors back on the ship to provide logistical support to the crew, warning them of hazards and offering advice. These are major concrete benefits. Additionally, by recording the crew’s mission, they are able to establish documentary evidence of the archaeological findings they make. As the crew have all consented to the recording, they are not likely to suffer as a result of the recording beyond the possibility of the record capturing an embarrassing moment they may wish to hide later. The benefits significantly outweigh any potential downside, so the recording is ethical.
According to section 2.05 of the software engineer’s code of ethics, employees should “keep private any confidential information gained in their professional work…” This rule not only applies to the software engineer writing the code that went into David, but should have also gone into David. The moment when he discloses watching Dr. Shaw’s dream, is a clear violation of the code on both the part of the engineers and David. Furthermore section 3.12 states that software engineers must develop software that “respect[s] the privacy of those who will be affected by the software.” Instead of restating violations of the code, let’s pose the question: is it immoral to apply these standards for software to a sentient being? Throughout the move and especially in the sequel, David demonstrates sentience and a desire to be human and loved. There are many instances where humans violate the privacy standards presented by the code for software. Applying it to something human-like is backward thinking. However even he were to be treated as a human, it still violates social norms and personal privacy on a level that one would expect from another person.