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Computer Ethics


Computer ethics is a branch of applied ethics that considers ethical issues raised or significantly amplified by computer technology. The field is sometimes referred to by other terms such as "cyberethics," "information ethics," "information communications technology ethics," "global information ethics," and "Internet ethics." But, whatever the field is called, the computer remains the essential technological feature. Although some computing technology, for example the abacus, is centuries old, computer ethics has developed as a philosophical field with the advent of modern, digital, electronic computing. Modern computing technology, which includes hardware, software, and networks, is highly flexible and powerful. Computers can be programmed and in some cases trained to perform a wide range of functions. Because of this logical malleability computers carry out numerous and diverse applications in society. Computer chips are ubiquitous. They are embedded in everyday items such as cars and clothing, toys and tools, and pets and people.

Communication that depends upon computer technology has grown dramatically through widespread use of the cell phones, global positioning systems, and the Internet. In the early twenty-first century, people in developed countries live in computationally revolutionized and informationally enriched environments. Because computing has become so integrated in society, computer ethics has expanded dramatically to issues involving most activities within society including education, law, business, government, and the military. Through its extensive growth computer ethics is a field of applied ethics that intersects and affects virtually all other branches of applied ethics.

Computer ethics is interesting philosophically, not merely because computing technology is widely used, but because the application of computing technology raises intriguing conceptual issues and serious ethical problems for society. This happens frequently because computers are logically malleable and can be configured to perform old tasks in new ways and to accomplish strikingly new tasks. When computing technology is deployed in novel ways, ethical guidelines for its use are frequently unclear or nonexistent. This creates policy vacuums that may be accompanied by conceptual confusions about how to understand the computerized situation adequately. Hence, computer ethics typically demands doing more than routinely applying ethical principles to ethical issues in computing. Rather computer ethics requires an analysis of the nature and impact of the computing technology and the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology. Listing all of the subject matter of computer ethics would be difficult as the field continues to expand as the application of computing grows, but broadly speaking traditional areas of investigation and analysis include privacy, property, power, security, and professionalism.

Because computers rapidly store and search vast amounts of information, privacy has been an ongoing concern of computer ethics. Personal information in medical documents, criminal records, and credit histories is easily retrieved and transmitted to others electronically, and as a result individuals are vulnerable to the improper disclosure of sensitive information and to the introduction of unknown errors into their records. The threat to privacy has been increasing in part because computing technology enables an enormous amount of information gathering to occur in subtle and undetectable ways. Internet stores track purchases of individuals and place cookies on personal computers inconspicuously. Computerized cameras in satellites, public places, private establishments, and personal cell phones record without notice. Computers utilizing global-positioning satellites routinely track locations of vehicles. Spyware installed on computers surreptitiously surveils the computing activities of unsuspecting users. In general, personal information can be collected from many sources and potentially assembled in databases that can be further merged, matched, and mined to construct profiles of the lives of individuals. Many fear that the widespread use of computers to collect information is creating a panopticon society in which too many details of individual lives are known by others, leaving people with dramatically reduced levels of privacy. Philosophical analyses of the nature of privacy, the policies to protect privacy, and the justifications for privacy are more important than ever.

Property is also a major issue within computer ethics. This has become increasingly important because of the significant growth in hardware and software and the computerization of many popular products including art, photos, music, movies, and games that are produced, transmitted, and portrayed using a digital format. Because digital information can be copied so easily and accurately, the extent to which digital products should be owned and protected is heavily debated. Some libertarians on this issue argue that "information wants to be free" and that traditional intellectual property restrictions should not apply. For instance, those in the open source software movement advocate licensing that permits the free redistribution of software and requires accessibility to a program's source code so that it can be tested and improved by others. Those who advocate the ownership of intellectual digital property argue that with ownership comes pride and profit incentive that will generate digital products that otherwise would never be produced.

Debates over the rights of ownership raise many difficult philosophical issues. What is it that is owned and how should it be protected? A computer disk itself does not have much value; it is the information on the disk that matters. Information seems to be nothing more than an idea and ideas are not normally given intellectual property protection. As an example, consider again computer programs. Computer programs are algorithmic and hence mathematical in nature. This suggests that computer programs, like the Pythagorean theorem, should not be owned at all. However, computer programs generally are fixed in a tangible medium and are lengthy, original human expressions. As such they are appropriately covered by copyright protection. Yet, in their operation on machines computer programs are often novel, useful, nonobvious processes and hence are properly patentable. How, or even whether, computer programs should be protected depends largely on one's philosophical analysis of the nature of computer programs and on a justification of protecting intellectual property.

The basic philosophical issues of computerized property extend well beyond computer programs to every product in digital form. A movie that costs millions of dollars to make can be copied at no significant cost. If a movie is copied illegally using the Internet, to what extent should various contributors be held accountablethe person downloading the copy, the person who maintains a directory on the Internet informing people where copies are located, the person who makes a digital version available for others to copy, the company that makes the software specifically designed to copy movies easily over the Internet, or the Internet service provider?

Computers can create and shift relationships of power. Because computers allow individuals to perform tasks more easily and to accomplish some activities that they could never do without them, those who have access to computers have access to power. As a consequence, an obvious social concern is the disparity in advantage of those who have access to computing, for example in school, over those who do not. Unequal distribution of power may require ethical countermeasures to ensure fairness. To what extent, for example, should disabled citizens be assured of equal access to computing technology? To some degree the Internet has helped to correct this imbalance of power and even shift power toward the individual. For a modest fee individuals can advertise personal items for sale on the Web to a large audience. Politicians who are not well connected to an established political group can run an Internet campaign to express their ideas and to solicit funds. Independent hotel operators can unite through an Internet reservation service to compete with the larger hotel chains.

But the Internet's ability to shift power to the individual allows one person to solicit children to arrange illicit sexual encounters, to send spam e-mails to millions of people, and to spread viruses and worms. Moreover, Internet power shifts can sometimes result in making the strong even stronger. Large corporations can outsource jobs to cheaper labor markets and dominant militaries can enhance their capabilities with computerized communication and weapons. These power shifts raise philosophical questions about what the new relationships should be One of the most important power questions is who should govern the Internet itself.

The issue of rights and responsibilities of individuals on the Internet is complex because the Internet that supports the Web is worldwide. Different countries have different laws and customs and therefore have different concerns about the Web. Any given country may have great difficulty enforcing its concerns with information coming and going beyond its borders. Consider differences with regard to free speech as just one example. France and Germany have been concerned about prohibiting hate speech. China has targeted political speech. In the United States the focus has been largely on controlling pornography over the Internet. Even within a country's borders free speech often raises perplexing conceptual issues. For instance, should pornography that utilizes virtual children be regulated differently than pornography displaying actual children? But, even assuming agreement on the law, how does a country stop or punish a violator of free speech on the Internet who is located in some remote location in the world? Should the law be change to accommodate the realities of the Internet?

Not surprisingly security is as a fundamental problem on the Internet. Computer users can act from a distance over networks and thereby can accomplish goals without being observed. Hackers can break into computers and remove or alter data without being detected. Ordinary citizens can use tools on the Web to gather information from public documents in order to steal the identities of others. Terrorists can disrupt entire networks that control vital resources such as the electric power grid. The lack of security on the Internet is reminiscent of Plato's story of the ring of Gyges that allowed a shepherd to act invisibly. Plato posed the question, Why should someone be just if he can get away with being unjust? Plato's question is not just an abstract theoretical issue given the availability of current computer technology. If an Internet user can act unjustly and get away with it, why should he or she not do it?

Many people who design and operate computing systems regard themselves as computing professionals. But, given that anyone, regardless of educational background, can be hired to do computing, what does it mean to claim that someone is a computing professional? To what standards, including ethical standards, should computing professionals adhere? Although several codes of ethics have been offered to clarify what duties and responsibilities computer professionals have, professional responsibility has been difficult to establish for at least two reasons. First, unlike medicine and law, the field does not have a tradition of professional qualifying examinations and licensing, and therefore enforcement of any code of ethics is difficult. Second, the nature of computing itself makes the assessment of responsibility difficult. Computer programs are often enormously complex, written by dozens of people, and incomprehensible to any one person. Moreover, such large computer programs are brittle in that a tiny, obscure error can shatter the performance of the entire system under certain conditions. To what extent should computing professionals be regarded as liable when such difficult to predict errors lead to major failures or even catastrophic results?

Although traditionally computer ethics has focused on the ethics of computing situations, a philosophically rich part of the field is computational ethics that considers the impact computing has or theoretically may have on ethics itself. Philosophical issues in this area include questions such as: In what ways can ethical decision making be properly assisted by computational methods? In principle, could a computer ever make appropriate ethical decisions? Could computer implants in humans enhance and possibly alter human values? And, could a computer, or perhaps a robot, ever have rights or moral responsibilities?

See also Applied Ethics; Power; Property; Rights.


Bynum, T. W., and S. Rogerson, eds. Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2004.

Johnson, D. G. Computer Ethics. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000.

Johnson, D. G., and H. Nissenbaum, eds. Computers, Ethics, and Social Value. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995.

Moor, J. H. "What Is Computer Ethics?" Metaphilosophy 16 (4) (1985): 266275.

Spinello, R. A. CyberEthics: Morality and Law in Cyberspace. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2003.

Spinello, R. A., and H. T. Tavani, eds. Readings in Cyberethics. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.

Tavani, H. T. Ethics and Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communication Technology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2004.

James H. Moor (1996, 2005)

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Computer Ethics


Computer ethics refers to the ways in which ethical traditions and norms are tested, applied, stretched, negotiated, and broken in the realm of computer technology. As computers brought about dramatically enhanced power of communication and data manipulation, new ethical questions and controversies were forced to the forefront of contemporary ethics debates. While ethics is concerned with codes of behavior, the arena of computer technology has created many uncertainties that make the establishment of such clear codes an often daunting task.

The more dramatic abuses of computer technology, such as major Internet hackings of company Web sites and online theft of credit card numbers, achieve a high profile. While there are few uncertainties about such cases, these are only the most visible examples of far more prevalent phenomena. Most cases are more subtle, frequent, and tied to the everyday workings of ordinary, law-abiding citizens. There are few clear rules to govern ethical computer behavior, and novel situations arise with great frequency, which can prove dangerous when these fields and practices are mixed with business and sensitive information.

The sheer scope of computer usage, spanning nearly every part of daily life and work, from medical records and communications to payment schedules and national defense systems, makes the untangling of ethical considerations all the more important, as unchecked ethical violations in one area can have severe repercussions throughout a wider system. On the personal level, individuals may run into ethical difficulties in considering what other activities they are facilitating by performing their particular functions via computer. Unfortunately, the speed of computer innovation has usually far outpaced the development of ethical norms to guide the application of new technologies.

The sheer volume of data available to individuals and organizations heightens the concern over computer ethics. No firm, for instance, can forego the opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of data and data manipulation afforded by modern information technology and telecommunications. The competitive nature of the economy provides an incentive to beat competitors to certain advantageous practices so as to capitalize on those advantages. The trick, then, is for organizations to devise ethical principles that allow for the greatest level of innovation and competitive strategy while remaining within the bounds of acceptable societal ethics, thereby maintaining the stability of the system from which they hope to benefit. Likewise, businesses need to coordinate codes of ethics to avoid having their own information systems compromised and putting themselves at a disadvantage.

Regarding the Internet itself, the ethical conundrum centers on several basic questions. Will this medium have negative effects on society? What preventive measures can and should be taken to protect against these negative effects? In what ways will these preventive measures give rise to even more ethical considerations? Ultimately, how does society balance potential benefits with potentially damaging effects?

E-commerce, in particular, creates a host of new ethical considerations, particularly in the area of marketing. The level of personal information and detail that can be accumulated about an individualthanks to the conversion of integrated databases, polling and purchasing data, and other computer-based dataposes rather serious questions about an individual's rights to personal information in the digital spectrum. The easy collection and exchange of personal consumption patterns and interests over the Internet, while highly desirable to many firms, makes civil libertarians queasy. More broadly, those concerned with computer ethics ask to what extent information perceived as a public good ought to be transformed into a marketable commodity.

Of course, computer activity that is legal isn't necessarily ethical. For example, the invasion of employee privacy via the monitoring of computer-based communications and other computer activity, while generally held to be legal, nonetheless poses serious ethical dilemmas. In addition, computers and related technology greatly depersonalize information and communication and allow for enhanced anonymity, which in turn can lead to diminished barriers to unethical behavior.

Information technology and computer professionals began seriously considering the long-term effects of computer ethics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They recognized the need to organize professionally through such bodies as the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to devise professional codes of conduct. However, the increasing proliferation of powerful computers in the hands of nonprofessionals widens the scope of potential problems.

Public interest groups such as the Computer Ethics Institute have made attempts to draw out basic guidelines for ethical computer behavior applicable throughout society. In that spirit, the institute formulated the "Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics," a list of basic dos and don'ts for computer use. Several professional associations have attempted to devise computer ethics codes. The code devised by the Association for Computing Machinery, for instance, included specific instructions that it is "the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals," and that clear definitions for the retention and storage of such information and the enforcement thereof must be implemented for the protection of individual privacy.


The bulk of the scholarly literature on computer ethics focuses on ethical issues in the workplace. Companies and organizations are continually confronted with ethical challenges and violations that require resolution either through clarifying internal policy, internal disciplining and enforcement, or litigation, depending on the nature and severity of the violation. But in addition to the obvious financial vulnerabilities of unethical computer usesuch as compromised financial data, employee theft, and a battered public imagethe organization's attempts to solve the problems internally can rack up significant costs as well.

While there certainly are no shortage of cases of willfully malicious acts of unethical computer behavior, most ethical lapses simply result from a lack of certainty on the part of the user and lack of policy clarity on the part of the organization. More broadly, since ethics are challenged repeatedly as technological innovations open new possibilities, society as a whole often is uncertain about the proper ethical behavior in given situations. In relatively young fields like information technology, the determination of appropriate behavior can be a particularly acute problem.

A major study in Journal of Business Ethics on the individual's determination of ethical computer behavior found that judgments are reached through a complex mix of individual experience, consideration of co-workers' behavior, and company expectations. Surveying more than 300 members of the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP), the study compared individuals' personal judgments of ethical behaviors with their assumptions about the judgments of their co-workers and their organizations. Interestingly, there were broad differences across these categories, reflecting a lack of clarity, both within firms and through the economy more broadly, of ethical computer behavior.

One major challenge for organizations, then, is to facilitate harmony between personal ethical norms, peers' ethical norms, and organizational norms, and eliminate confusion between them. Eliminating incongruence between different layers of expectations and ethical norms is pivotal to minimizing what ethical scholars call "moral stress," which results from the lack of certainty over what constitutes ethical, appropriate behavior.

Although data are mixed, numerous studies in the field of computer ethics support the hypothesis that a written and clearly transmitted code of ethics is a strong influence on employee behavior when an ethical decision is involved. A survey of non-management employees at Fortune 500 companies by the Journal of Business Ethics found that 97 percent of employees felt their management should clarify and communicate what constitutes ethical computer use for employees, while nearly two-thirds reported that codes of computer ethics were widely known in their companies. Only one-fourth of respondents reported that they knew of direct evidence of computer abuse in their organizations, while 55 percent weren't aware of any computer abuse within the company.

There is a legislative history to the enforcement of ethical behavior in the business world and incentive for companies to implement and enforce their own codes of ethics. For instance, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 was designed to rein in questionable practices, and their consequences, among corporations. Meanwhile, the 1991 Federal Sentencing Guidelines held companies responsible for the acts of their employees, adding that as part of the remedy for violations a company is required to spell out what actions the company is taking to ensure that the offending practices will not occur in the future. Picking up on such outside pressure for codification, many companies began to move proactively to devise specific computer-related codes of ethics. Raising awareness of specific responsibilities can greatly eliminate the eventual resort to lawsuits and other costly and time-consuming measures of remediation.


Aside from obvious criminal activities, subtler forms of computer activity can pose ethical problems. For instance, the use of company computer equipment by employees for personal activities has been vigorously debated, but no clear answers have been formulated that can apply in all organizations. Most employees that use computers maintain an e-mail account and regularly check their mail at work. Generally, this is essential since internal company communications often are transmitted via e-mail. However, employees also may receive personal e-mail at the same account and spend their time at work using the company computer to send and receive personal messages.

New technologies not only allowed for the monitoring of e-mail communications, but other Internet activity such as listservs, chat rooms, and even Web browsing. While companies may well wish to make sure their employees are using their time for company purposes, the monitoring of Web traffic strikes many as an ethical lapse, particularly since the reasoning behind visiting a Web site cannot be determined simply by knowing that an individual went there. This problem extended far beyond the company setting. Fears over governmental or private monitoring of individuals' activities on the Internet opens up an entire range of serious ethical concerns. Because the context of a certain kind of communication or site visitation may be unknown to outside monitors, there is a significant possibility of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misuse of such acquired data.

The conflict between personal privacy and company surveillance of e-mail communications and other computer activity was one of the most widely publicized computer-ethical controversies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While companies argue that the monitoring of their own systems to ensure their appropriate use and the beneficial use of company time is necessary to maintain competitiveness, the moral right to personal privacy was continually asserted.


In addition to representing a pressing business and social concern, computer ethics increasingly was seen as an important area of study. Many universities have added computer ethics to their curricula, a measure that is now required for a computer science department to earn certification by the Computer Accreditation Board. Even elementary and secondary school students were exposed to computer-ethics lessons in the early 2000s. The generation that was raised with powerful computers and the Internet was a prime consideration for those concerned with the ethical use of such technology. According to the Boston Globe, more than half of the 47,000 elementary and middle school students surveyed in 2000 reported that they did not consider computer hacking to be a crime.

To get to these youngsters early, before unethical behavior becomes a habit, the U.S. Department of Justice partnered with the Information Technology Association of America, a technology trade group, to form the Cybercitizen Partnership. The partnership involved a nationwide campaign to build awareness of computer ethics by providing resources to schools and parents. It was hoped that by reaching students of all ages with the need to develop ethical codes of computer use, future disasters stemming from the misuse of tomorrow's even more powerful technologies could be averted.


Bush, Victoria D.; Beverly T. Venable; and Alan J. Bush. "Ethics and Marketing on the Internet: Practitioners' Perceptions of Societal, Industry, and Company Concerns." Journal of Business Ethics. February, 2000.

Forester, Tom, and Perry Morrison. Computer Ethics: Caution-ary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Goldsborough, Reid. "Computers and Ethics." Link-up. January/February, 2000.

Hilton, Timothy. "Information Systems Ethics: A Practitioner Survey." Journal of Business Ethics. December, 2000.

Kreie, Jennifer; and Timothy Paul Cronan. "Making Ethical Decisions." Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery. December, 2000.

Miller, Seumas; and John Weckert. "Privacy, the Workplace, and the Internet." Journal of Business Ethics. December, 2000.

Pierce, Margaret Anne; and John W. Henry. "Judgments About Computer Ethics: Do Individual, Co-worker, and Company Judgments Differ? Do Company Codes Make a Difference." Journal of Business Ethics. December, 2000.

Pliagas, Linda. "Learning IT Right from Wrong." InfoWorld. October 2, 2000.

Schroeder, Daniel. "Virtues and Voices." Network World. December 11, 2000.

Taylor, Paul. "Balancing the Benefits and Dangers." Financial Times. July 7, 1999.

Weinstein, Bob. "Right and Wrong on the Net: In New Frontier, Educators See Need to Teach Ethics to the Young." Boston Globe. January 14, 2001.

SEE ALSO: Computer Crime; Computer Ethics Institute; Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986; Fraud, Internet; Hacking; Misinformation Online; Privacy: Issues, Policies, Statements

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