Computer Ethics

Computer Ethics is a division of practical philosophy which deals with how computer development professionals should take decisions regarding professional and social conduct. Since the 1990s this topic has started being integrated into professional development programs in academic settings. The abstract foundations of computer ethics are investigated by information ethics, a branch of philosophical ethics established by Luciano Floridi. Computer ethics is a very important topic in computer software applications.

As we all know that each society has its own rules and defines the dos and the don'ts. These rules define a boundary or limit to our actions and term them as acceptable behavior. Thus defined are the conventions of the society on good or bad and justice and injustice. These rules form the ethics. But at times, these rules do not cover new situations.

Computers have revolutionized everything right from the beginning. Be it health sector, education, development as well as war. It has touched and changed people's life irrespective of their occupation or region. Hence, it's important for all of us to participate in defining and following computer ethics.

Computer ethics can be defined as the applied ethics that examines legal, social and moral issues in the development and use of computer technology. History of Computer Ethics:

1940s : A computing pioneer and MIT professor named Norbert Wiener created Cybernetics, an information feedback system. He opined that computers would create more unemployment than Great Depression. But this forecast was ignored for decades.

1950: The Human Use of Human Beings, a book was published by Norbert Wiener, that established him as the founder ethics and thus laid the foundation for computer ethics. In doing so, Wiener developed a cybernetic view of human nature and society, which in turn led him to ethically suggest the purpose of human life. Based on this, he framed great principles of justice and believed that all societies should and must follow it. The powerful ethical concepts thus developed, enabled Wiener to analyze all kinds of ethical issues.

1966: Joseph Wiezenbaum of MIT wrote a program called ELIZA that enables the computer to act like a psychotherapist. A human teaches the computer to find the area of a square, a circle and a sphere and then asks geometrical questions to the computer. A person could also teach German to the computer.

1966: First computer crime was recorded. It so happened that a programmer prevented his banking account from being flagged as overdrawn by using the computer code. When the crime was later discovered, there was no law to charge it.

1966: Freedom of Information Act was adopted. This act gave the individual and organizations the right to access data from the federal government.

1970: A medical teacher and researcher named Walter Maner felt that there ought to be a separate branch of applied computer ethics. He developed course and conducted workshops. This was when the term Computer Ethics coined.

1970: An act that dealt with handling of credit data, Fair Credit Reporting Act was adopted.

1973: Professional code of ethics was adopted by ACM. By mid 70s, new privacy and computer crime laws had been enacted in America and Europe.

1976: A book named ‘Computer Power and Human Reason' was published by Joseph Wiezenbaum, which is still considered as the classic of computer ethics.

1976: An article titled, ‘On approaches to the study of social issues in computing' was written by Abbe Mowshowitz. This article identified and analyzed the technical and non-technical biases in research on social issues in computing. Progressive individualism, tecnicism, pluralism, elitism and radical criticism- which reflect the major streams of contemporary social thoughts are examined.

1978: Right to Federal Privacy Act was adopted which limited the governments authority to search bank records.

1979: A curriculum on computer ethics for the university was developed by Terrell Ward Bynum. Later, he conducted an essay competition so as to generate interest in computer ethics.

1984: Small Business Computer Security and Education Act was adopted. This Act advises the Congress on matters relating to computer crime against small businesses.

1985: Terrell Ward Bynum published the widest selling issue in journal's history named ‘Entitled Computers and Ethics'.

1985: A classic essay ‘What is Computer Ethics?' was written by James Moor. According to him, computer ethics includes:

  1. Identification of computer generated policy vacuums
  2. Clarification of conceptual muddles
  3. Formulation of policies for the use of computer technology
  4. Ethical justification of such policies.

1985: A first major textbook on computer ethics was published by Deborah Johnson. This set out to become a standard setting textbook on computer ethics. It also set up a research agenda for about a decade.

1986: Electronic Communications Privacy Act was rewritten. This Act now covered the digital, data and video communication.

1988: The term, ‘Information Ethics' was coined by a St. Cloud University librarian named Robert Hauptman. The term compromised all the ethical issues related to the production, storage, access and dissemination of information.

1988: Computer Matching and Privacy Act was adopted. This Act restricts government's right to programs and identifying debtors.

In short, in the period 1970s - 1980s, the exponential growth of computer technology that features mini, micro and personal computer was witnessed. It was an era of networking. During this period, attention was drawn to issues like property rights, liability, software piracy, privacy, computer crime, hackers and more.

Since the mid of 1980s, the computer ethics field has tremendously grown. University courses, research centers, articles, textbooks and conferences were widely discussed.

1992: ‘ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct' was adopted by the ACM. The Act consists of 24 imperatives formulated as statement of personal responsibility.

1995: Gornaik Kocikowska predicted that computer ethics will eventually evolve into global ethics and will be applicable to every culture. Ultimately, it will be the ordinary ethics of information age.

1999: Deborah Johnson opposed Gornaik's view and assumed that computer ethical theories will not lead to a revolution in ethics but only serves as the bedrock foundation of ethical thinking and analysis. Its just the same old ethic questions with a new twist.

The period from 1990s to the present is considered as the age of coming together of computers, telecommunications and media. This also involves the internet and World Wide Web. This is phenomenal and has brought to the forefront a set of serious issues like freedom of expression, legal jurisdiction, networking communities plus the concerns of the past.

Computer Ethics and Society

The rapid growth of computer technology has had both good and bad impacts on the society. The bad aspects have thus resulted in the birth of a new branch called the computer ethics. These set of ethics are quickly being transformed into ‘global information ethics'. The following are the streams under computer ethics:

(a) Computers in Workplace: Computers, as we all know have a vast influence and also perform almost any kind of task quickly and efficiently. Though the repair and maintenance aspect is not to be ignored, they seldom require rest or complain of sickness. In other words, computers are far more efficient than humans in performing many parallel tasks. Therefore, it is always tempting for the industries to replace manpower by these quick computing machines. Telephone operators, typists, accountants, etc.; have found that computers perform their duties more accurately and effectively. It should be noted that computers have created new jobs as well. It had made room for software engineers, hardware engineers, webmasters, and system analysts and so on. It is believed that, in the short run computer generated unemployment will be a major social issue but in the long run, there will be enough employment created by this computer technology. A job need not be eliminated by computer technology rather, it could be suitably altered. It is feared that even these altered jobs may severely de-skill the worker and turn them into a mere button pushers! A workplace issue that frequently crops up is that of health and safety of the user. Forester and Morrison rightly point out that, when information technology is introduced in a workplace, it is important to consider the likely impacts upon the health and the job satisfaction of workers who use it. It is quiet possible, that such workers feel stressed trying to keep up with these high speed devices. Their health is at stake as they are subjected to the harmful radiation emitted by the computer monitors. These are some of the computer ethical issues at workplace.

(b) Computer Crimes: We are all so very familiar with the words, ‘computer virus' and ‘hackers'. The mentioned find a prominent place under computer crimes. This isn't about physical security but that of logical security. Spafford, Heaphy and Ferbrache (1989) divide the term ‘logical security' into 5 aspects as stated below:

  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Integrity: Ensuring that data and computer programs are not modified without proper authority.
  • Unimpaired service
  • Consistency: Ensuring that the data and behavior we see today will be the same tomorrow.
  • Controlling access to the resources
  • Most of the computer crimes are usually committed by trusted personnel and are authorized to use the system. It is therefore necessary to form a computer security system, taking into account the actions of such possibilities.

    The other major threat to the security is that of the hacker. A hacker is a person who breaks into someone's computing system without permission. Most of the hackers have an intention to either steal data or simply vandalize it. But there are available another set of hackers who do not have any bad intention of corrupting the system but hack just for the thrill of doing so or curiosity. The later could be used for constructive purposes by the government. They could be used to catch the destructive hackers.

    (c) Privacy and Anonymity: Privacy was a great concern right from the beginning of the computer age. In 1960s, the US government had large database of personal information of its citizens. The US Congress had plans to introduce unique ID numbers to each of its citizens based on the database. But this plan was strongly opposed as the people saw it as an invasion of their privacy. This led the United States president to scrap the plan and appoint committee to address the aspect of privacy. Some of the major computer privacy laws were passed in United States in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, privacy still remains the major concern. Why is it a top priority? It is because of the easy access to the system and the readily available information or database in these systems. Storing very personal information can at times prove to be fatal. The various issues of privacy so far aroused have resulted in the redefine of the concept of privacy. Earlier, privacy was defined as ‘control over personal information'. But philosophers Moor and Tavani have argued that ‘control over personal information' is insufficient to protect privacy, rather, ‘the concept of privacy is itself best defined in terms of restricted access, not control'. Also, Nissenbaum has stated that there is even a sense of privacy in public domain, or circumstances other than ‘intimate'. It is therefore concluded that an adequate definition of privacy must take into account ‘privacy in public'. With the increase in the use of computers, the discussion on privacy and anonymity will prevail. Retaining anonymity may become utmost necessary on the internet when it comes to sensitive subjects like AIDS or opinions about social taboo or while expressing a political view. But at the same time, anonymity and privacy can make things easier for a pedophile or pornography, terror outfits, drug trafficking, gambling, etc. Such unwanted elements of the society may utilize the system to exploit the vulnerable.

    (d) Intellectual Property: Intellectual property or ownership of a software product has long been a talked about aspect in the software industry. Some people argue against the ownership of software programs and feel that they should be made available to everybody in need of them. But industry experts feel that it's not feasible to provide everything in free. It was in fact, Richard Stallman who strongly believed that software ownership should not encouraged. He felt that knowledge should be freely available. He started the Free Software Foundation and opined that software applications and programs should be available to all free of cost for studying, usage, modification or up gradation. But there are lot of other people who argue that it is not possible to provide software programs or applications free of cost as companies would not invest on manpower and intellectuals and expect nothing in return. The companies want a return on investment and profit and cannot function free of cost. In fact, software industry claim to lose a lot of money due to illegal copying. Thus ownership is a complex matter. One is allowed to own the following aspects of a program:

    1. The source code which is written by programmer(s) in a computer language like C++ or Java.
    2. The object code which is a computer machine language translation of the source code.
    3. The look and feel of a program, that is the way a program appears on the screen and interfaces with the users.

    Owning a patent on a computer algorithm is a very ambiguous issue. If at all a patent is given to an algorithm, then the owner can deny others the use of the mathematical formulae used in the algorithm. This isn't right as the formulae are taken from the mathematical domain that is readily available to anybody and free of cost. Moreover, checking for the already claimed patents is a time consuming and a costly affair. And only very large companies with huge investment capacity will be in a position for further research and development in the mentioned field. This clearly rules out the chances of small players.

    e) Professional Responsibility: We have previously discussed the vast impact of computer knowledge and also the accessibility it provides to its users. These professions are skilled people with special knowledge and many a times enjoy a considerable amount of authority. But it should be noted that with this authority comes a greater responsibility of being accountable to the public and should respect the values of the society. A true professional will never misuse his position and use his power responsibly. Various people in relationships like employee-employer, client-supplier, and society-professional in a work environment may have varied interests. These interests can be conflicting at times. Responsible professionals will be well aware of these hitches and will always try to avoid them.

    The Associating for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Engineers, have established codes of ethics, curriculum guidelines and accreditation requirements to help computer system professionals understand and manage ethical responsibilities. For example, in 1991 a Joint Curriculum Task Force of the adopted a set of guidelines for college programs in computer science. The guidelines say that a significant component of computer ethics should be included in undergraduate education in computer science [Turner, 1991]. In addition, both the IEEE and ACM have adopted Codes of Ethics for their members. The most recent ACM Code [1992], for example, includes “general moral imperatives”, such as “avoid harm to others” and “be honest and trustworthy”. And also included are “more specific professional responsibilities”.

    The Accreditation Board for Engineering Technologies has long required an ethics component in the computer engineering curriculum. And in 1991, the Computer Sciences Accreditation Commission/Computer Sciences Accreditation Board also adopted the specification that a significant component of computer ethics be included in any computer sciences degree granting program that is nationally accredited (Conry, 1992). It is clear that organizations in computer science recognize and insist upon standards of professional responsibility for their associates.

    f) Globalization: Computer knowledge has increased networking throughout the world and hence there has emerged a need for global ethics. As Krystyna Gomiak Kocikowa notes in her paper, ‘the Computer Revolution and the Problem of Global Ethics', for the first time in history, efforts to develop mutually agreed standards of conduct, and efforts to advance and defend human values, are being made in a truly global context.


    So for the first time in the world, people have come together to form a set of code of values and ethics that would impact the world in a better way and make it a much better place to live in. This change would be rightly called as the most important social development. These above discussed ethics and values speak a universal language and are applicable to all the people irrespective of their religion, community or region. A language that needs to be passed on to generations to come.


    1. ACM Council . “Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct .” 1992.
    2. Bynum, Terrell Ward. “A Very Short History of Computer Ethics.”
    3. Floridi, Luciano. “Information Ethics: On the Theoretical Foundations of Computer Ethics. 1999.
    4. Godejord, Per Arne. “Getting Involved: Perspectives on the Use of True Projects as Tools for Developing Ethical Thinking in Computer Science Students, International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction.”
    5. Johnson, Deborah G. Computer Ethics. Prentice Hall.

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