In 1997, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disciplined employees who, out of curiosity, were looking up
tax returns of famous people. The employees were not working on the taxpayers’ returns. They were not
obtaining information for investigations; they were simply checking to see who made how much income.
The IRS fired 23 employees, disciplined 349, and provided counseling for 472. During 1996 and 1997, the
IRS investigated 1,515 cases of snooping among its 102,000 employees. By 2007, the number of snooping
investigations was increasing by about 400 per year, with employee disciplinary actions taken in about onehalf of the cases. About 60 cases per year are referred for criminal prosecution of employees. By 2012, the
IRS had implemented an audit program that tracked employee searches of records to detect access in
comparison to the employees’ work assignments and whether the files of individual taxpayers that
employees pulled up were related to the audit or review functions that they had been assigned. The report
concluded that the tracking was deficient in determining authorization for the employees to access certain
files and needed to be improved. Is this practice so bad? What is wrong with just looking at data accessible
at work? The IRS employees said they did not disclose the data and therefore didn’t violate federal privacy
laws. Are ethics and laws the same thing?