Computer Ethics

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The field of study referred to as computer ethics addresses ethical issues arising around the development and use of computers and related technology. Computer ethics can be thought of as the field of study that examines ethical issues distinctive to an information society. Information society is the term often used (especially by economists and sociologists) to characterize societies in which human activity and social institutions have been significantly transformed by computer and information technology (Webster 2002). The focus of attention in this field has varied over its twenty-five- to thirty-year history as the technology has evolved. Because the field is relatively new and computer technology is continually changing and being used in new domains, computer ethics overlaps with other fields of study such as information ethics, media ethics, and communication ethics, as well as domain-specific ethics such as medical ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, and legal ethics. Computer ethics is centrally focused on understanding the interactions among science, technology, and ethics and, arguably, it is one of the most developed fields with such a focus.

A Short History of Computer Ethics

From the moment of their invention, computers raised complex social, ethical, and value concerns. While computers are not the first technology to raise ethical issues, they have been especially fascinating to scholars, science fiction writers, and the public. The origin of this fascination may well be related to computers having been initially perceived and characterized as thinking machines. As such, they were thought to challenge the distinguishing feature of humankind. For centuries, human beings had been thought of as unique because they were able to reason and had the capacity for rational thinking. When computers were first developed and used, they seemed capable of being programmed to think in some of the ways that humans think; some believed they had the potential to become even more sophisticated and eventually reach or even surpass human intelligence. In that context, it was thought that computers would revolutionize the way humans think about themselves and what it means to be human. While many of the original hopes and promises of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers have not come to fruition, computers have changed the way scientists think about human cognition and brain functions. Computer technology continues to be a fascination for scientists, science fiction writers, and humanities and social science scholars as well as ethicists.

From a historical perspective, the ethical issues identified in relation to computers seem to follow the sequence of development of the technology. In addition to the threat to notions of what it means to be human, in the very early days of computing the first ethical issues arose in relation to the enormous power that computers might give to government and large bureaucratic organizations. By the late 1970s, the first books on this topic were published. Joseph Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason (1976) and Abbe Mowshowitz's Conquest of Will (1976) were, perhaps, the most notable. In this period, the record-keeping capabilities of computers were a key focus, especially the privacy issues raised by this record keeping. Several major government reports were issued including: in 1972, Databanks in a Free Society: Computers, Record-Keeping and Privacy by Alan F. Westin and Michael A. Baker, a report of the National Academy of Sciences; in 1973, Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens, a report of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems; and in 1977, Personal Privacy in an Information Society: The Report of the Privacy Protection Study Commission. The issues that took shape in this period were largely issues of privacy and the power of centralized government was often characterized as the threat of Big Brother. In the aftermath of World War II and the fight against totalitarianism, it was feared that computers would give government unprecedented power and reach.

In hindsight this concern was the result in part of the size of computers. At that time, they were huge mainframe systems that cost a lot, took up a lot of space, and were labor-intensive; hence large organizations were the only viable users. Moreover, in those early days of computing, mainframes were used for large-scale calculations and to create and maintain huge databases. Such calculations made weapons development, space travel, and census tracking possible on a broader scale than ever before. The databases mostly contained personal information. In any event, large organizations were the likely users and hence the concerns about centralization of power and privacy.

The next major technological shift was the development of small computers referred to initially as microcomputers and later personal computers. Public interest, for a time at least, turned to the democratizing aspects of computers. Computer enthusiasts saw in these small machines the potential for a major social revolution. With visions of computers in every home and shifts in power from large organizations to small businesses and individuals, the fear of Big Brother dissipated somewhat.

As microcomputers were being developed and taking hold in the marketplace, remote access became possible, first to contact large mainframes and later as a component of a network of telecommunications connections between large and small computers. That network eventually became the Internet. However, long before the advent of the Internet, attention turned to software. Microcomputers were less expensive and easier to use; this meant a much broader range of users and, in turn, a broad range of uses. During this phase in the development of computers, software became extremely important both for the development of the technology but also, in parallel, for computer ethics.

To make computers effective tools for the wide range of activities that seemed possible, user-friendly software was critical. Companies and individuals began developing software with a fury, and with that development came a new set of ethical issues. Issues having to do with property rights and platform dominance in software were particularly important in this era. Software was recognized as something with enormous market value; hence, the questions: Should software be owned? If so, how? Would existing intellectual property law—copyright, patents, trade secrecy—be adequate protection for software developers? Ownership rights in programs used to create computer or video games were the first kinds of software cases brought before the courts; the market value of owning these programs was significant.

Along with property rights issues came issues of liability and responsibility. Consumers who buy and use computers and software want to be able to rely on these tools, and when something goes wrong, they want to know whom to blame or they want to be compensated for their losses. Computer ethicists as well as lawyers and computing professionals rose to the challenge and questions of property rights and liability were debated in print as well as in courts.

In the 1980s, more attention began to focus on hackers. Hackers did not like the idea of property rights in software. However those who were acquiring such property rights or making a business of computing were threatened by hackers not only because the latter were breaking into systems but also because they had a different vision of how the system of computers, software, and telecommunications connections should be set up and how software should be distributed. At that time, there were no laws against breaking into computer systems or duplicating software. Hackers argued for open systems with fewer controls on access to information. Perhaps the best illustration of this movement is Richard Stallman's work and the development of the Free Software Association (Stallman 1995).

By the 1990s, the development of the Internet was well underway and seen as a revolutionary event. The coming together of computers, telecommunications, and media and the global scale of the Internet produced a seemingly endless array of ethical issues. The Internet was being used in many different ways, in many different domains of life. In effect the Internet recreated much of the world in a new medium. Property rights, freedom of speech, trust, liability, and privacy had to be rethought for a medium in which instantaneous communication was the norm; the reproduction of information, documents, or programs was almost effortless; and anonymity was favored. Moreover the new medium facilitated interaction on a global scale, raising issues regarding what laws and conventions applied in cyberspace.

During the 1980s and 1990s, computer technology also began to be used for a wide variety of visualization activities. Computer graphics and gaming were part of this, but equally if not more important was the development of many simulation applications including medical imagining and graphical dynamic models of the natural world. The power and reliability of these technologies raised ethical concern. An offshoot of these developments was a focus on virtual reality and what it might mean to human experience. Would human beings become addicted to living in fantasy worlds? Would experiences in violent, virtual computer games make individuals more violent than they would otherwise be? These concerns continue in the early-twenty-first century as new applications are developed. For example, important ethical issues are being raised about tele-medicine. Computing together with the Internet makes it possible for many aspects of medical treatment to be performed electronically. Issues of responsibility and liability are diffused when doctors do surgery remotely. A doctor in one location can manipulate machines that are electronically connected to machines in a second location where the surgical procedure actually occurs. Should doctors be allowed to do this? That is, is it appropriate? Is it safe? Who is responsible if something goes wrong?

Ethical issues surrounding computer technology continue to arise as new developments in the technology occur. Many of these involve computing applications. For example, new areas of concern include surveillance technologies that result from using geographic information systems and digital imagining to keep track of individuals via digital cameras and satellites. There are projections about the use of tiny, biological computers that might be deployed in human bodies to seek out poorly functioning cells and fix them. Computer technology makes possible human behavior and social arrangements that have a moral character. Hence activities involving computers will continue to be a focus for computer ethics.

Persistent Issues

As computer technology evolves and is deployed in new ways, ethical issues proliferate. To illustrate the kinds of concerns that arise, issues of professional ethics, privacy, hacking and cracking, and the Internet will be briefly described.

PROFESSIONAL ETHICS. In an information society, a large number of individuals are educated for, and employed in, jobs that involve development, maintenance, buying and selling, and use of computer and information technology. Indeed an information society is dependent on such individuals—dependent on their special knowledge and expertise and on them fulfilling social and professional responsibilities. Expertise in computing can be used recklessly or cautiously, for good or ill, and the organization of information technology experts into occupations and professions is an important social means of ensuring that the expertise is used in ways that serve human well-being.

The social responsibilities of computer experts are connected to more general notions of duty and responsibility and computer ethicists have drawn on a variety of traditional philosophical concepts and theories to understand them. Computing professional associations have developed codes of ethical and professional conduct that represent what computer professionals believe to be their duties and the ideals to which they should aspire. However it is important to note that computing is not a single, homogenous profession. The responsibilities and likely areas of ethical concern vary widely with the computer professional's particular job and employment context. Consider, for example, the differences between academic computer scientists, software engineers working in industry, programmers, managers of information technology units in organizations, and computer and software marketers.

The largest and most visible organization of computer professionals is the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM). The ACM has a code of ethics and professional conduct and, with the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), also has developed a code for software engineers, the ACM/IEEE Code of Ethics for Software Engineers. The key elements in both codes are very general edicts to contribute to society and human well-being; avoid harm; be honest and trustworthy; and act in a manner that is consistent with the interests of client, employer, and public. Yet both codes go beyond these general principles and give content and meaning to the principles. While one can argue that codes of conduct are not a very effective mechanism for regulating behavior, they are an important component in constituting a responsible profession. The codes are statements to the public as to what to expect; they articulate standards for the field and make clear that members are professionals. Codes can be used in relation to employers and others to emphasize that computer professionals must adhere to standards independent of the orders they receive at work.

PRIVACY. In an information society, privacy is a major concern in that much (though by no means all) of the information gathered and processed is information about individuals. Computer technology makes possible a magnitude of data collection, storage, retention, and exchange unimaginable before computers. Indeed computer technology has made information collection a built-in feature of many activities, for example, using a credit card, making a phone call, and browsing the Worldwide Web (WWW). Such information is often referred to as transaction-generated information (TGI).

Computer ethicists often draw on prior philosophical and legal analyses of privacy and focus on two fundamental questions, What is privacy? and Why is it of value? These questions have been contentious and privacy often appears to be an elusive concept. Some argue that privacy can be reduced to other concepts such as property or liberty; some argue that privacy is something in its own right and that it is intrinsically valuable; yet others argue that while not intrinsically valuable, privacy is instrumental to other values such as friendship, intimacy, and democracy.

Computer ethicists have taken up privacy issues in parallel with more popular public concerns about the social effects of so much personal information being gathered and exchanged. The fear is that an information society can easily become a surveillance society. Computer ethicists have drawn on the work of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault suggesting that all the data being gathered about individuals may create a world in which people effectively live their daily lives in a panopticon (Reiman 1995). Panopticon is a term that describes the shape of a structure that Bentham designed for prisons. In a panopticon, prison cells are arranged in a circle with the inside wall of each cell made of glass so that a guard, sitting in a guard tower situated in the center of the circle, can see everything that happens in every cell. The effect is not two-way; that is, the prisoners cannot see the guard in the tower. In fact, a prison guard need not be in the guard tower for the panopticon to have its effect; it is enough that prisoners believe they are being watched. When individuals believe they are being watched, they adjust their behavior accordingly; they take into account how the watcher will perceive their behavior. This influences individual behavior and how individuals see themselves.

While computerized information gathering does not physically create the structure of a panopticon, it does something similar insofar as it makes much individual behavior available for observation. Thus the data collection activities of an information society could have a panoptic effect. Individuals know that most of what they do can be observed and that knowledge could influence how they behave. When human behavior is monitored, recorded, and tracked, individuals may become intent on conforming to norms for fear of negative consequences. If this were to happen to a significant extent, the ability of individuals to act freely and think critically—capacities necessary to realize democracy—may be compromised. In this respect, the privacy issues around computer technology go to the heart of freedom and democracy.

A good illustration of the panoptic environment is the use of cookies at web sites. A cookie is a file placed on a user's computer when the user visits a web site. The file allows the web site to keep track of subsequent visits by the user. Thus, the web site maintains a record of the user's visits. While this can help the web site provide better service to the user—based on information about use—users are being watched, records are being created and the panoptic effect may occur. Moreover, the records created can be matched with information from other web sites and domains.

It might be argued that the panoptic effect will not occur in information societies because data collection is invisible; individuals are unaware they are being watched. This is a possibility, but it is also possible that as individuals become more and more accustomed to information societies, they will become more aware of the extent to which they are being watched. They will see how information gathered in various places is put together and used to make decisions that affect their interactions with government agencies, credit bureaus, insurance companies, educational institutions, and employers, among others.

Concerns about privacy have been taken up in the policy arena with the passage of legislation to control and limit the collection and use of personal data. An important focus is comparative analyses of policies in different countries. The U.S. approach has been piecemeal with separate legislation for different kinds of records, for instance, medical records, employment histories, and credit records. By contrast, several European countries have comprehensive policies that specify what kind of information can be collected under what conditions in all domains. The growing importance of global business influences policy debates. Information-gathering organizations promise that they will use information only in certain ways; yet, in a global economy, data collected in one country—with a certain kind of data protection—can flow to another country where there is no protection, or where such protection differs from that of the original country. To assure that this does not happen, a good deal of attention is focused on working out international arrangements and agreements to protect data internationally.

HACKERS AND CRACKERS. While the threats to privacy described above arise from uses of computer and information technology, other threats arise from abuses. As individuals and companies do more and more electronically, their privacy and property rights become increasingly important. Individuals who defy the law or test its limits can threaten these rights. Such individuals, often called hackers or crackers, may seek personal gain or may just enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to crack security mechanisms. The term hacker originally referred to individuals who simply loved the challenge of working on programs and figuring out how to do complex things with computers, but who did not necessarily break the law. Crackers referred to individuals who did. However, in the early-twenty-first century, the terms are used somewhat interchangeably to refer to those who engage in criminal activity.

Distinguishing the terms, however, reveals two streams of development in computing and two streams of analysis in computer ethics. Hackers are not only individuals who love computing and are very knowledgeable about it, but in particular are those who advocate an alternative vision of how computer technology might be developed and used. Hackers are interested in a computing environment that has more sharing and less ownership. For many hackers, this is not just talk. They are involved in what is sometimes called the open source movement, which involves the development of software that is available for free and can be modified by the user. Over the years, through various organizations, a good deal of open source software has been developed including, notably, the Linux operating system.

Because hackers represent an alternative vision of software, they are seen as part of a social and political movement, a kind of counterculture. A strand of this movement goes beyond the development of open source software and engages in political activism, using computing expertise to make political statements. The term hacktivism refers to on-line political activism. Whether such behavior is legal or illegal remains ambiguous.

Another stream of analysis centers around crackers. Cracker refers, simply, to an online criminal. Crackers break into systems or disrupt activities on the Internet by launching viruses or worms or by engaging in a host of other kinds of disruptive behavior, including pinging, and taking control of websites. The ethical issues are not particularly deep. Cracking behavior interferes with innocent users who are trying to do what they have legal rights to do; the behavior of crackers may violate property rights or privacy, involve harassment, and more. Computer ethics literature examines this behavior for its ethical content but also to try to understand whether there is anything unique or special about cracking behavior and computer crime.

Law often lags behind technology and, in the early days of computing, there were no prohibitions against the disruptive behavior of crackers. In the early-twenty-first century, however, there are many laws regulating behavior on the Internet. Yet issues and problems persist. New technologies facilitate crackers and there are serious questions regarding harmonization of laws globally. Anonymity makes it difficult to catch computer criminals.

INTERNET ISSUES. Arguably the Internet is the most powerful technological development of the late-twentieth century. The Internet brings together many industries but especially the computer, telecommunications, and media enterprises. It provides a forum for millions of individuals and businesses around the world. It is not surprising, then, that the Internet is a major focus of attention for computer ethicists. The development of the Internet has involved moving many basic social institutions from a paper and ink environment to an electronic environment. The change in environment changes the features of activities. Thus a number of ethical issues arise as regards the behavior of individuals and organizations on the Internet.

The Internet has at least three features that make it unique. First, it has unusual scope in that it provides many-to-many communication on a global scale. Of course, television and radio, as well as the telephone, are global in scale, but television and radio are one-to-many forms of communication, and the telephone, which is many-to-many, is expensive and more difficult to use. Individuals and companies can communicate with one another on the Internet frequently, in real time, at relatively low cost, with ease, and with visual as well as sound components. Second, the Internet facilitates a certain kind of anonymity. One can communicate with individuals across the globe (with ease and minimal cost), using pseudonyms or real identities, and yet never actually meet those people. This type of anonymity affects the content and nature of the communication. The third special feature of the Internet is its reproducibility. Text, software programs, music, and video on the Internet can be duplicated ad infinitum and altered with ease. The reproducibility of the medium means that all activity on the Internet is recorded and can be traced.

These three features—global, many-to-many scope; anonymity; and reproducibility—have enormous positive, as well as negative, potential. The global, many-to-many capacity can bring people closer together, relegating geographic distance to insignificance. This feature is especially liberating to those for whom travel is physically challenging or prohibitively expensive. However these benefits come with drawbacks; one is that such capabilities are also available to those who use them for heinous purposes. Individuals can—while sitting anywhere in the world, with very little effort—launch viruses and disrupt communication. They can misrepresent themselves and dupe others on a much larger scale than was possible before the Internet.

Similarly anonymity has both benefits and dangers. The kind of anonymity available on the Internet frees some individuals by removing barriers based on physical appearance. For example, in contexts in which race and gender may get in the way of fair treatment, the anonymity provided by the Internet can eliminate bias (for example, in online education, race, gender, and physical appearance are removed as factors affecting student-to-student interactions as well as teacher evaluations of students). Anonymity may also facilitate participation in beneficial activities such as discussions among rape victims, battered wives, or criminal offenders, in which individuals might be reluctant to participate unless they had anonymity.

Nevertheless anonymity leads to serious problems of accountability and integrity of information. Perhaps the best illustration of this is information acquired in chat rooms on the Internet. It is difficult (though not impossible) to be certain of the identities of people with whom one is chatting. One person may participate under multiple identities; a number of individuals may use the same identity; or participants may have vested interests in the information being discussed (for instance, a participant may be an employee of the company or product being discussed). When one cannot determine the true source of information or develop a history of experiences with a particular source, it is impossible to gauge the reliability of the information.

Like global scope and anonymity, reproducibility also has benefits and dangers. Reproducibility facilitates access to information and communication; it allows words and documents to be forwarded (and downloaded) to an almost infinite number of sites. It also helps in tracing cybercriminals. At the same time, however, reproducibility threatens privacy and property rights. It adds to problems of accountability and integrity of information arising from anonymity. For example, students can send their assignments to teachers electronically. This saves time, is convenient, and saves paper. However the reproducibility of the medium raises questions about the integrity of the students' product. How can a teacher be sure a student actually wrote the submitted paper and did not download it from a web site?

As the daily activities of individuals and businesses have moved online, distinctive ethical questions and issues have been identified; some of these issues have been addressed by adopting or modifying relevant laws; others have been addressed by new technology; yet others persist as nagging problems without solution or only with solutions that are worse than the problem. Plagiarism is an example of a problem that can be at least partially addressed via new technology; that is, there are tools available for teachers and professors to use to detect student work that has been copied from the Internet or copied from other students. On the other hand, pornography is an example of an issue that defies solution. An incredibly large proportion of the traffic on the internet involves distributing, advertising, and accessing pornography. This seems an unworthy use of one of the most important, if not the most important, inventions of the twentieth century. Yet, eliminating or reducing pornography on the Internet would seem to require censorship and policing of a kind that would undermine the freedom of expression that is the bedrock of democratic societies. Hence, pornography on the internet persists.


Perhaps the deepest philosophical thinking on computer-ethical issues has been reflection on the field itself—its appropriate subject matter, its relationship to other fields, and its methodology. In a seminal piece titled "What is Computer Ethics?" James Moor (1985) recognized that when computers are first introduced into an environment, they make it possible for human beings (as individuals and through institutions) to do things they could not do before and that this creates policyvacuums. People do not have rules, policies, and conventions on how to behave with regard to the new possibilities. Should employers monitor employees with computer software? Should doctors perform surgery remotely? Is there any harm in taking on a pseudoidentity in an on-line chat room? Should companies doing business online be allowed to sell the TGI they collect? These are examples of policy vacuums created by computer technology.

Moor's account of computer ethics has shaped the field. Many computer ethicists see their role as that of filling policy vacuums. Indeed one topic of interest in computer ethics is defining the activity of filling policy vacuums.

Because computers and information technology will continue to evolve and become further integrated into human life, new ethical issues will certainly arise. However, as human beings become more and more accustomed to interacting with and through computer technology, the difference between ethics and computer ethics may well disappear.


SEE ALSO Artificial Intelligence;Communication Ethics;Computer Viruses/Infections;Engineering Ethics;Gates, Bill;Geographic Information Systems;Hardware and Software;Hypertext;Internet;Networks;Security;Special Effects;Turing, Alan;Video Games.


Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems. Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens. U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Publication No. (OS) 73–94, July 1973.

Johnson, Deborah G. (2001). Computer ethics, 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. A philosophical survey of the ethical issues arising around computer technology.

Moor, James H. (1985). "What Is Computer Ethics?" Metaphilosophy 16(4): 266–275. Classic piece on why the study of computer ethics is needed.

Mowshowitz, Abbe. (1976). The Conquest of Will: Information Processing in Human Affairs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Privacy Protection Study Commission. (1977). Personal Privacy in an Information Society: The Report of the Privacy Protection Study Commission. Washington, DC: Author. For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Reiman, Jeffrey H. (1995). "Driving to the Panopticon: A Philosophical Exploration of the Risks to Privacy Posed by the Highway Technology of The Future." Computer and High Technology Law Journal 11: 27–44. Provides an argument for the importance of privacy incorporating Foucault's analysis of the panoptic effect.

Stallman, Richard. (1995). "Are Computer Property Rights Absolute?" In Computers, Ethics, and Social Values, ed. Deborah G. Johnson and Helen Nissenbaum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Articulates a rationale for why software should not be private property.

Webster, Frank. (2002). Theories of the Information Society. New York: Routledge. Provides an account of the major theories describing information societies, their key features, and how they work.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. A classic early work on the social implications of computers.

Westin, Alan F., and Michael A. Baker. (1972). Databanks in a Free Society: Computers, Record-Keeping and Privacy. New York: Quadrangel Books. Report of the Project on Computer Databanks of the Computer Science and Engineering Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

Computer Ethics

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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.


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

Computer Ethics

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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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