Computer Ethics

Merriam-Webster defines ethic as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation”

In this case, Computer Ethics is a set of principles that regulate the use of computers. Vast research relating to computer ethics have been carried out mostly in developed nations. However because of the dynamics of technology usage, every day we are presented with more challenges as to what is right or wrong regarding how we choose to use our devices.

Some common challenges are: Is it ethically right to connect to a coffee cafe’s free WiFi if you’re not in the cafe as a customer? — While most people don’t see what is morally wrong with doing so, it still doesn’t make it ethically right. Is jailbreaking your iPhone unethical? Or sending out personal emails using work email? Or taking advantage of the free minutes at work to make personal phone calls. The truth is (unless stated otherwise) there is no standard or straightforward answer. In the first example; if the coffee cafe were to state “Free WiFi — available to customers only” then that makes it a criminal violation, not an ethical dilemma. When there are no laws in place, it is a bit hard to charge someone with a crime.

Image Source: WiFi Net News

The article “What is Computer Ethics” published in 1985 by James Moor outlines the primary problem in applying ethics to computers. Moor said there exist a “policy vacuum” in computer ethics; which is the lack of standard procedures or rules that govern actions that deal with the use of technology in a way that follows ethical values. Another identified issue associated with Computer Ethics is “conceptual vacuum” which is the lack of a specific definition of terms that provide one with an understanding of the elements in a specific model or system. Moor’s work helped paved the development of policies and guidelines for ethics in technology.

Today, most organizations have ethical dos and don’ts. But what happens when there is no specified code of computer ethics in place? Even though there are many ethical standards, policies, and guidelines set by many companies, organizations and bodies (ACM, CISSP, CEI etc.) outlining how to use computers and related technologies. The issue is, unless you are part of one of these associations, it really doesn’t apply to you.

The same issue applies to Nigerian organizations (especially small businesses). Unless they have a standard Code of Computer Ethics, one can always get away with doing something unethical, but not illegal. NITDA has some really good policies and guidelines. It will be interesting to see other agencies implement such. The easiest way to overcome computer ethical issues is to have a defined Code of Computer Ethics.

While it is hard to determine what the Computer Ethics Code should be, a simplified approach would be to monitor individual activities and quickly implement Code of Computer Ethics based on any unwanted acts to ensure another person doesn’t follow suit.

Another approach is using the model proposed by Michael Davis. In Davis’ model “the ethical problem is stated, facts are checked, and a list of options is generated by considering relevant factors relating to the problem. The actual action taken is influenced by specific ethical standards.” In general, defining how to deal with ethical issues as they arise has always been problematic.

Finally, when it comes to deciding how to act where neither policies, ethics, nor guidelines are outlined. The easiest way to understand the ethical ramifications is by attempting to associate the act with one of the most widely used Code of Computer Ethics. The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics created in 1992 by the Computer Ethics Institute (CEI) are:

  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people’s computer work.
  3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people’s computer files.
  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid (without permission).
  7. Thou shalt not use other people’s computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.
  8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people’s intellectual output.
  9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.
  10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.

To learn more about the CEI Code of Ethics, visit their web page.