Ethical issues of expert systems


When people think of ethics, they often think personal views. While that is a large part of ethics, because of the rapid advancement of information technology a redefinition of ethics must occur which includes the non-human element and what it represents (the computer). The purpose of ethics in information security is not just philosophically important; it could mean the survival of a business, or an industry.

There are great variety of ethical issues in IT that need to be considered and some of the different types will be discussed in the body of this essay as follows;

Plagiarism; Plagiarism is the first ethical issue that would be discussed, it can be defined as the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work without giving credit to the original author. This is a highly unethical practice, but this happens quite frequently but with a lot of information available on the internet, it is much easier to do and happens more often.

Piracy; is another ethical issue to be discussed as it is widely accepted as the illegal copying of software is a very serious problem, and it is estimated in the UK that approximately 26% of all programs on PCs are pirated copies. Programmers spend a lot of time designing programs, using elaborate code, and surely need to be protected. Although some might argue that some pirating at least should be permitted as it can help to lead to a more computer literate population. But, for corporations, in particular, this is a very serious issue, and can significantly damage profit margins.

Computer Crimes; Many different computer crimes are committed, which clearly poses ethical questions for society. Various illegal acts are performed on computers, such as fraud and embezzlement. This includes, for example, using imaging and desktop publishing to create, copy or alter official documents and graphic images. There are also various ethical dilemmas, such as whether copying such files is as bad as stealing something.

Viruses; Clearly writing and spreading virus programs are unethical acts which need to be addressed; they have very serious consequences, and cause systems to crash and organisations to cease operating for certain periods. One of the most concerning consequences of such actions is when viruses interrupt the smooth functioning of an organisation such as a hospital, which could in extreme cases even cause people to die. Logic bombs are also sometimes planted.

There is obviously a lot of anti-virus software on the market now though that helps to deal with this ever-growing problem.

Netiquettes; are also ethical/moral codes that should be adhered to, in the use of networks and email correspondence. As already indicated, the setting up of such codes has become necessary as people have not always addressed each other in an appropriate manner through this means of communication, and in this way they have behaved unethically. As pointed out by Margaret Lynch (1994) guidelines for 'on-line civil behaviour' include, for example, not wasting peoples' time and not taking up network storage with large files. Furthermore, not looking at other peoples' files or using other systems without permission and not using capital letters, as this denotes shouting. Also, people that become too obnoxious can be banned or ignored. A 'kill file' can be set-up which will automatically erases messages from that person.

Issues of data collection, storage and access; There are many moral issues that need to be considered in regard to the collection, storage and access of data in electronic form. Under what circumstances, for example, should one seek permission from or inform those whose records are on file? Furthermore, how accurate is the data and who has access to it?

Intellectual property rights (moral rights); There are moral rights embedded within much intellectual property rights legislation, agreements and directives, for the benefit of creators of works and copyright holders. Furthermore, there are penalties for those that violate such legislation, (such as violating copyright legislation), although this can sometimes be difficult to enforce in practice. The legislation, though, is often complex and difficult to understand, which means that some creators of works do not obtain the moral rights that they are entitled to. However, sometimes, moral rights are actually excluded from agreement

Speed of computers; The pure speed at which computers operate can cause ethical problems in themselves. It can allow people to perform unethical issues quickly, or perform operations that it was difficult or impossible to perform before, such as browsing through files one is not authorised to. It can also mean that people do not enough consideration before performing various actions

Vendor-client issues; Ethical issues also arise in regard to vendor-client relationships. The vendor being the computer supplier and the client being the person that is buying the computer system, whether this would be the hardware or software or both. If the user continually changes the system specification, for example, to what extent should the vendor be prepared to adjust the system specification accordingly? Other unethical acts include, for example, consultants selling the program to the second client, after being paid to develop the program for the first client only. Also, the vendor might provide hardware maintenance according to a written contract and for hardware to be repaired in a 'timely manner', but the client might not believe that the repairs have been timely. Drawing up more precise contracts might help here, but in some instances the outcome can probably only depend on peoples' individual moral consciences.

Expert systems; these are a body of information in a specific field that is held in an electronic format, such as a 'doctor expert system', that houses detailed medical information on a database. Various questions can be posed in regard to expert systems, such as what is the basis of ownership? Is it the different elements that comprise the total system or the total package? These issues are related to intellectual property rights and the moral aspects in regard to this. Belohlav, Drehemer and Raho report on a survey of information system professionals that was undertaken, which examined the perceptions of these professionals on the development and use of expert systems business organisations. The population that was examined was the membership of the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA), and 499 usable questionnaires were returned. The DPMA is the largest general computing association in the United States. The survey examined how knowledge of an expert system was developed. Respondents said that individual experts in an organisation should be informed about their participation, but that they should not necessarily be forced to participate in creating an existing system. Furthermore, they said that they were not the owners of the end product. Thus, the respondents had clear opinions about their moral rights in relation to the use of their intellectual property for expert systems, although also:

The results indicate that no uniform ethical perspective dominates the perceptions of the respondents in assessing expert system applications (Belohlav, Drehmer and Raho, und., p.1).

This, perhaps, helps to illustrate the complexity of ethical issues here.

There are also wider ethical issues in regard to expert systems that need to be explored. In regard to a 'doctor expert system', for example, such a system can provide accurate information, but the face-to-face contact is missing. Such face-to-face contact might prove to be essential in order to ensure that the right diagnosis is made, and it is possible that some individuals could even die as a result of a wrong diagnosis given through this lack of face-to-face contact. In other ways expert systems could help to save lives. The patient might, for example, be given a speedier response. All these ethical issues need to be considered further.


Thus, there is a vast range of ethical issues in I.T., and some of these have been discussed in this article. These can be broken down into a number of sub-headings, including computer crime, social implications, advanced I.T. issues, netiquette and intellectual property rights. Some of these can be solved quite easily, whilst others seem to be almost impossible to solve. Kallman and Grillo say that in order to create an ethical computing environment we need to establish rules of conduct. Referring to ethical issues in I.T. in general, they say:

Because computers permeate our work and personal lives, all of us have an obligation to see that they are used responsibly. The factors that characterize ethical dilemmas in a computer environment include the speed of a computer, vulnerability of computer data to unauthoized

change, and the fact that protecting information often decreases its accessibility. Because of the effort effect, harmless situations may turn into harmful ones without our realizing it (Kallman and Grillo, 1996, p.31).

There is much food for thought and a lot of work that needs to be done, if we are to meaningfully address some of these issues. Not addressing some of these issues (such as computer viruses) is not an option anyway, if we want to continue to live in an I.T. age (which seems inevitable anyway) - we cannot have viruses causing our I.T. systems to continually crash.


  • Ethical Issues of Expert Systems by Jim Belohlav, David Drehmer, Louis Raho
  • Kallman, Ernest A. and John P. Grillo. "Solving Ethical Dilemmas: A Sample Case Exercise." Ethical Decision Making and Information Technology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996

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