The importance of confidentiality in engineering, and a case study.

In what situations can a claim of ‘whistleblowing’ justify the disclosure of confidential information?

Red rubber stamp that reads 'Confidential' Confidentiality is the limiting of access to information to those who have either a legal or an ethical right to that access. Although confidentiality is perhaps more traditionally associated with professionals such as doctors, lawyers and psychiatrists, engineers too can frequently find themselves in possession of confidential information. You should try to be aware of any confidentiality requirements attached to any of the data to which you have access.

Sometimes restrictions on access to data can have a legal or contractual basis. For example, any contract of employment will almost certainly contain a clause forbidding you to divulge commercially sensitive information about your employer, even after your term of employment is complete. In other cases, you may not be subject to legal restrictions, but still have an ethical duty to maintain confidentiality, for example if a colleague talks to you in confidence about a personal matter.

While it is important to maintain confidentiality in almost all cases, there may be some unusual cases where confidentiality requirements can be overridden, for example when this is the only way to prevent unethical behaviour from taking place. ‘Whistleblowing’ cases are like this; whistleblowers may feel that they have an overriding ethical duty to divulge confidential information, for example to the media. Furthermore, being a whistleblower is a legal status which may grant immunity from prosecution for breaching confidentiality in some cases.

It can also sometimes be difficult to decide precisely what information counts as confidential. This can depend on various factors such as the situation, and the individuals involved.

This interactive case study looks at confidentiality and whistleblowing in the context of a chemical company.

The IET has also produced guidance for members surrounding the issue of whistleblowing.

You can also see which IET Rules of Conduct are relevant to confidentiality