The computer ethics

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Computer ethics as a field of study was founded by MIT professor Norbert Wiener during World War Two (early 1940s) while helping to develop an antiaircraft.

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 education 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 most 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.

Neglect, Then a Reawakening

Unfortunately, this complex and important new area of applied ethics, which Wiener founded in the 1940s, remained nearly undeveloped and unexplored until the mid 1960s. By then, important social and ethical consequences of computer technology had already become manifest, and interest in computer-related ethical issues began to grow. Computer-aided bank robberies and other crimes attracted the attention of Donn Parker, who wrote books and articles on computer crime and proposed to the Association for Computing Machinery that they adopt a code of ethics for their members.

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 ASSOCIATING FOR COMPUTING MACHINERY. By mid 70s, new computer crime laws and privacy 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 non-technical and 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 information, data and video stream 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 liability, property rights, privacy, computer crime, software piracy, hackers and more.

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

1992: 'Associating for Computing Machinery Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct' was adopted by the Associating for Computing Machinery. 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.

Society and Computer Ethics

Ethics is a set of moral rules that managed the behavior of an individual or group. Therefore, computer ethics is set of moral principles that controlled the use of computer systems. Some common problems of computer ethics include intellectual property rights (such as copyrighted electronic content), secrecy concerns, and how computer system affects society.

For example, while it is easy to copy copyrighted electronic information, computer ethics would propose that it is not correct to do so without the author's approval. And while it may be possible to access someone's personal data on a computer system, computer ethics would suggest that such an action is unethical.

Copyright protects an author's work from being duplicated and published by other person. It gives the author exclusive distribution and publication rights, which means others not able to republish the copyrighted content without the author's prior permission. This holds to many types of electronic content, including literary works, music, video, artwork and digital publications, such as websites and blogs. In most countries, copyright protection is automatic. But, for highly confidential content, copyrights may be registered with a central firm. Most websites and blogs are protected by automatic copyright, though many include a basic copyright line near the bottom of each page. This short line of text, which often includes the "©" symbol, lets users know the page contains copyrighted content.

As technology moving forward, computer systems continue to have a huge impact on society. Therefore, computer ethics promotes the dialog of how much influence computer system should have in areas such as human communication and artificial intelligence. As the world of computers evolves, computer ethics continues to create ethical standards that address new issues raised by new technologies.

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 being translated into 'global information ethics'. The following are the streams under computer ethics:

  1. 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 effective than person 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 small execution 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.
  2. Computer data is information stored or processed by a computer system. This information may be in the form of text files, images, audio clips, software applications, or other types of data. Computer data may be processed by the computer's central processing unit and is stored in files on the computer systems hard disk.

    At its most fundamental level, computer system data is a part of ones and zeros, known as binary information. Because all computer system data is in binary format, it can be created, processed, saved, and stored electronic format. This allows data to be transferred from one computer to another using a network connection or various media devices. It also does not deteriorate over time or lose quality after being used multiple times.

  3. 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:

    1. Privacy and confidentiality
    2. Integrity: Ensuring that data and computer application are not changed without proper authority.
    3. Unimpaired service
    4. Consistency: Ensuring that the data and behavior we see today will be the same in future.
    5. Managing 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.

    Cybercrime is a criminal offence done using system over the Internet. This includes downloading illegal software files to stealing millions of dollars from internet bank accounts. This also includes non-monetary offenses, such as developing and distributing viruses on other systems or emailing confidential business document on the Internet.

    Perhaps the biggest form of cybercrime is identity theft, in which criminals use the Internet to steal personal data from other members. Two of the general ways this is done is through phishing and pharming. Both of this procedure lures members to fake websites, where they are asked to enter personal data. This includes login credentials, such as usernames and passwords, addresses, credit card numbers, phone numbers, bank account information, and other information criminals can use to "steal" another person's identity. For this reason, it is smart to always check the url of a website to make sure it is authorized before entering your confidential data.

    Because cybercrime covers such a large scope of criminal activity, the examples above are only a few of the millions of crimes that are considered cybercrimes. While system and the Internet have made our lives easier in many ways, it is unfortunate that people also misuse these technologies to take advantage of others. Therefore, it is smart to protect yourself by using spyware blocking software and antivirus being careful where you enter your confidential data.

  4. 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 secrecy 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 Tavani and Moor 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 secrecy 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.

  5. 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 lots 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 scenes of a application:

    1. The source code which is written by developer in a computer language like java.
    2. The object code which is a system machine language transformation of the source code.
    3. The look and feel of a program, that is the way application appears on the monitor and interfaces with the users.

    Having a patent on a system algorithm is a very ambiguous issue. If at all a patent is given to an algorithm, then the owner can reject others the use of the mathematical and system 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.

  6. 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.
  7. The Associating for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Engineers, have established codes of ethics, course of study guidelines and enfranchisement requirements to help computer system developers understand and managing ethical duties. For example, Joint Curriculum Task Force in 1991 adopted a set of guidelines for college application in computer science. The guidelines say that a significant component of computer ethics should be included in low level education in computer science [Turner, 1991]. In addition, both the Institute of Electrical and Engineers and Associating for Computing Machinery have adopted Codes of Ethics for their members. The most recent Associating for Computing Machinery 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 substantial component of computer ethics be included in any computer sciences degree awarding program that is nationally accredited [1992, Conry]. It is clear that organizations in computer science recognize and insist upon standards of professional duties for their associates.

  8. Globalization: Computer system 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.

The Role of Government

Government has been tasked throughout time as the arbitrator of ethics. Governments are often required to rule between ethical and unethical behavior. These rulings are not subjective. It is therefore requisite that governments spend the time to understand computer and Internet technologies so that they are better enable to resolve issues of legality. Decisions made now by the government will have a lasting impact on the future of technology and the freedoms people and organizations have in using that technology.

Social Behavior

Ethics are both designed for controlling social behavior and designed from existing social behavior. Creating a good ethical policy for social use of technology does not bread good use of that technology, but rather good use of technology breads good ethics. Ethical policy makers should therefore look at the effects of technology on society and make choices to maximize the benefits of that technology and minimize the negative effects.

Topical Areas

For each area in which computer technology pervades there are different ethic issues that must be addressed. Each of the ten topics has ethical implications and will be addressed in turn from a societal point of view rather than a technical point of view. The goal is to have both the technology and society come together on each of these issues to promote sustainable and useful applications to benefit people who operate in these areas.

The Future of Computer Ethics?

According to the Górniak hypothesis, "local" ethical theories like Europe's Benthamite and Kantian systems and the ethical systems of other cultures in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, etc., will eventually be superseded by a global ethics evolving from today's computer ethics. "Computer" ethics, then, will become the "ordinary" ethics of the information age.

The Johnson Hypothesis - In her 1999 ETHICOMP paper, Deborah Johnson expressed a view which, upon first sight, may seem to be the same as Górniak's: But a closer look at the Johnson hypothesis reveals that it is very different from Górniak's. On Górniak's view, the computer revolution will eventually lead to a new ethical system, global and cross-cultural in nature. The new "ethics for the information age,"

Johnson's hypothesis, in reality, is essentially the opposite of Górniak's.

Current ethical theories and principles, according to Johnson, will remain the bedrock foundation of ethical thinking and analysis, and the computer revolution will not lead to a revolution in ethics.

At the dawn of the 21st century, then, computer ethics thinkers have offered the world two very different views of the likely ethical relevance of computer technology. The Wiener-Maner-Górniak point of view sees computer technology as ethically revolutionary, requiring human beings to reexamine the foundations of ethics and the very definition of a human life. The more conservative Johnson perspective is that fundamental ethical theories will remain unaffected - that computer ethics issues are simply the same old ethics questions with a new twist - and consequently computer ethics as a distinct branch of applied philosophy will ultimately disappear.


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. Computer ethics will develop further. The explanation will change as will the standards, because technology is evolving and computer ethics will need to keep up. 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.


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  • Bynum, Terrell Ward. "A Very Short History of Computer Ethics."
  • Bynum, Terrell Ward. "The Foundation of Computer Ethics," a keynote address at the AICEC99 Conference, Melbourne, Australia, July 1999.
  • Floridi, Luciano. Information Ethics: On the Theoretical Foundations of Computer Ethics. 1999.
  • 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."
  • Johnson, Deborah G. Computer Ethics. Prentice Hall.
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  • Wiener Norbert (1950/1954), The Human Use of Human Beings