Teaching ethical issues in Information Technology: how and when
Ruth Rikowski London South Bank University, UK 1. Introduction
Information technology is of course a very much a taken-for-
granted part of everyday life today. There are, however, many
ethical issues that need to be considered and developed in I.T. This
article will firstly consider some of the philosophical issues
surrounding ethics and then examine some of the various ethical
issues in I.T. specifically. Some of the different methods for
teaching ethical issues in I.T. will then outlined as well as a
consideration about when it is appropriate to teach these different
ethical I.T. issues. 2. Philosophical issues surrounding ‘ethics’
The question of ‘what are ethics’ has always been a central part of
philosophy. So, any meaningful discussion about ethics must surely
begin with a philosophical enquiry. The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy refers to the great philosophers Aristotle, Socrates and
Plato, saying that: Aristotle conceives of ethical theory as a field distinct from the
theoretical sciences. Its methodology must match its subject matter –
good action – and must respect the fact that in this field many generalizations hold only for the most part. We study ethics in order to
improve our lives, and therefore its principal concern is the nature of human well-being. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the
virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex
rational, emotional and social skills
(Stanford Encyclopedia of
The Encylopedia continues, saying: …Aristotle is deeply indebted to Plato’s moral philosophy, particularly Plato’s central insight that moral thinking must be integrated with our
emotions and appetites, and that the preparation for such unity of character should begin with childhood education…
Encylopedia of Philosophy, p.2).
Meanwhile, Kallman and Grillo (1992) argue that: Ethics has to do with making a principle-based choice between
competing alternatives. In the simplest ethical dilemmas, the choice is between right and wrong
(Kallman and Grillo, 1996, p.3).
Ethics then, are often very subjective, and connected to our
emotions and our basic sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This means that
it can be difficult to define ethics rigorously. This also applies to
ethics in I.T.
Kallman and Grillo consider whether ‘computer ethics’ are different
from ‘regular ethics; and argue that: Most experts agree that there is actually no special category of
computer ethics; rather, there are ethical situations in which computers are involved
(Kallman and Grillo, 1996, p.4).
This would seem to be the most sensible way to approach the
subject. However, it must be noted that there are a great variety of
ethical issues that need to be considered in I.T., ranging from
plagiarism, to ergonomics and the digital divide, through to
netiquette and nanotechnology. These will all be considered in this
article. Furthermore, the meaning of ‘ethics’ might be interpreted
differently in these different circumstances. 3. Various ethical issues in I.T.
Any analysis of information technology should begin with a
definition of it. There are various definitions of I.T. The British
Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development defines it
quite succinctly as: The scientific, technological and engineering disciplines and the
management techniques used in information handling and processing; their applications; computers and their interaction with men and
machines; and associated social, economic and cultural matters
(British Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development,
Various writers have referred to the importance of adopting an
ethical/moral approach to I.T. Mason says that: Our moral imperative is clear. We must insure that information
technology, and the information it handles, are used to enhance the dignity of mankind
(Mason, 1986, p.10).
Professional computing bodies realise the importance of laying down
good ethical foundations, and as Bowyer notes …almost every professional organization dealing with the field of computing has published its own code of ethics
(Bowyer, 2001, p.47).
This includes organisations such as the Association of Information
Technology Professionals (AITP), the Association for Computing
Machinery (ACM) and the Computer Society of the Institute of
Electrical and Electronics Engineer (IEEE-CS). The ethical codes of
different organisations have some differences, but they are all in
broad agreement in regard to most of the important general issues.
These include, for example, being honest in professional
relationships and protecting the privacy and confidentiality of all
information that is entrusted to the professional.
Ethical issues in I.T. differ from general ethical issues in a variety of
ways. Parker, Swope and Baker note that ethical problems involving
computers pose a special challenge, for a number of different
reasons. Firstly, there is less personal contact. We sometimes
associate the moral decisions that we make with our face-to-face
contacts, including moral decisions on issues such as euthanasia
and abortion. Such face-to-face contact is missing when using I.T.
systems. This is why various ‘codes of ethical practice’ have been
developed for email communication on some networks, for example,
which can be referred to as ‘netiquette’. Without such a code, and
its penalties, some people would probably not address each other in
an appropriate manner in these forums. Secondly, the speed of
computers means that the likely repercussions of our actions might
not be adequately considered, and this could lead to unfortunate
consequences. An inappropriate email might be sent in a moment of
rage, which the sender later regrets, but meanwhile irreversible
decisions have been made on the basis of this! Thirdly, Parker,
Swope and Baker point out that information in electronic form is
more fragile than in paper form. Information in electronic form can
easily be changed, it is vulnerable to unauthorised access and it can
easily be reproduced. This raises questions in regard to issues such
as intellectual property rights, plagiarism, piracy and privacy.
Fourthly, there are issues around information itself. Information
integrity, information confidentiality and information
availability/non-availability can conflict with notions of information
sharing. Fifthly, Parker, Swope and Baker point out that a lack of
widespread means of authorisation and authentication means that
I.T. can be exposed to unethical practices.
Meanwhile, Kallman and Grillo (1996) outline various rights
, which can also be seen to be important areas to consider in
relation to ethical issues in I.T. In regard to ‘rights’
, they refer to
the ‘right to know’, such as the extent to which we have a right to
know and have access to information about us in a database. Also,
the ‘right to privacy’, and the extent to which we have a right to
control the use of information that relates to us, such as our
personal medical information. Finally, the ‘right to property’, and
the extent to which we have a right to protect our computer
resources from misuse and abuse, such as viruses. Under ‘duties’
they refer to ‘confidentiality’ and the need for a professional to
protect information from unauthorised access and use and
‘impartiality’, whereby a professional should aim to be fair and
impartial. An example of ‘impartiality’ is where a software company
makes new releases available to all customers, on the same basis.
The extent to which such ‘rights’ and ‘duties’ are enforceable in
practice is clearly debatable, but they provide some useful
guidelines for those concerned with ethical issues in I.T.
There are also differences between wider ethical I.T. issues related
to the well-being and dignity of humankind and people, and
organisations behaving morally in their own use of I.T. The former
includes issues such as transhumanism, nanotechnology, genetic
engineering and the patenting of life-forms, and the latter includes
issues such as plagiarism, netiquette and computer crime.
Kallman and Grillo consider computer ethics and individual
responsibility, arguing that: An individual who uses a computer, whether on the job or for personal use, has the responsibility to use it ethically
(Kallman and Grillo, 1996,
They say that individuals should take responsibility in a number of
key areas, such as protecting passwords and not leaving
confidential information unattended on the screen. Clearly, there
are differences between how individuals could and should behave
ethically in I.T. matters, compared with how organisations could
and should behave. Furthermore, different legislation applies.
Legislation for copyright for individual creators of works is different
from copyright legislation for organisations, for example.
The wider ethical issues in relation to I.T. consider the implications
of I.T. for society in general. If those designing complex I.T.
systems (such as nanotechnology) do not pay sufficient heed to
certain ethical/moral issues, then this could have very serious
consequences for society and, indeed, for human kind in general.
This is considered, in particular, in the nanotechnology section of
this article. Bill Joy suggests that if we do not heed to moral
principles then nanotechnology could begin to destroy humankind. 3.2 Types of ethical issues in I.T.
There are a great variety of ethical issues in I.T. that need to be
considered, and some of the different types will be considered in
this section. 3.2.1 Ethical dilemmas
There are various ethical dilemmas in relation to I.T. that need to
be addressed. What are and are not ethical issues in I.T.? In regard
to hackers, for example, are they testing the system or performing
an immoral action? Will genetic engineering improve the quality of
peoples’ lives or start to destroy it? How do we recognise when an
ethical dilemma exists? There are, indeed, many grey ethical areas.
Plagiarism is where the work of others is copied, but the author
presents it as his or her own work. This is a highly unethical
practice, but happens quite frequently, and with all the information
that is now available on the Internet it is much easier to do and is
happening more often. As Bowyer states: Plagiarism is the taking of the ideas, writings, drawings, words, or
other similar intellectual property created by others and presenting it as your own. It is generally not a legal issue, like copyright
infringement, but it is an ethical one. For example, you can reuse writings in the public domain without worrying about the legal
problem of infringing a copyright, but presenting them as your own without proper credit to their true origin is an act of plagiarism. And
plagiarism is unethical
(Bowyer, 2001, p.267).
Bowyer also refers to ‘self-plagiarism’, whereby the author reuses
his/her own words from a previous publication in a newer
publication without referencing the older publication. There are
software packages that operate to detect plagiarism from the
Internet, but it would be highly beneficial if more work was
undertaken in this area.
Piracy, the illegal copying of software, is a very serious problem,
and it is estimated that approximately 50% of all programs on PCs
are pirated copies. Programmers spend hours and hours designing
programs, using elaborate code, and surely need to be protected.
Although some might argue that some pirating at least should be
permitted as it can help to lead to a more computer literate
population. But, for corporations, in particular, this is a very serious
issue, and can significantly damage profit margins. 3.2.4 Hacking
Hackers break into, or ‘hack’ into a system. Hacking can be
undertaken for a variety of reasons, such as the wish to damage a
system or the wish to understand how a system works, so that
money can be made out of it. Alternatively, there might be a desire
to alert people to the fact that a system is insecure and needs
improving. Due to this some argue that there are ‘hacker ethics’.
Mikkkeee (und.) says that: The ethics behind hacking and the actions taken by hackers constitute
a philosophical manifesto that transcends our understanding of the art
(Mikkkeee, und. p.1).
Hacking can present a moral dilemma. This is because ‘reformed
hackers’ sometimes offer their expertise to help organisations
protect themselves against other hackers. Hackers cannot just
wander into a system, as they could into an unlocked door. Instead,
it requires a lot of skill. With this skill hackers can demonstrate that
a system is insecure and needs improving. In this way, it could be
argued that hackers play a valuable role. However, many such as
Mikkkeee, argue that hacking might lead to some improvements,
but that it causes such a lot of disruption that it is not worth it in
the long-run. Mikkkeee suggests that there should be a National
Data Protection Commission to monitor information, propose
legislation and monitor abuse. 3.2.5 Computer crime
Many different computer crimes are committed, which clearly poses
ethical questions for society. Various illegal acts are performed on
computers, such as fraud and embezzlement. This includes, for
example, using imaging and desktop publishing to create, copy or
alter official documents and graphic images. There are also various
ethical dilemmas, such as whether copying such files is as bad as
stealing something. 3.2.6 Viruses
Clearly writing and spreading virus programs are unethical acts,
they have very serious consequences, and cause systems to crash
and organisations to cease operating for certain periods. One of the
most concerning consequences of such actions is when viruses
interrupt the smooth functioning of an organisation such as a
hospital, which could in extreme cases even cause people to die.
Logic bombs are also sometimes planted.
There is obviously a lot of anti-virus software on the market now
though that helps to deal with this ever-growing problem. 3.2.7 Ergonomics/health issues
There are many ergonomic/health issues related to I.T.
Responsible/ethically-minded employers will, hopefully, give due
consideration to this, as indeed should all employers. This includes
issues such as the importance of taking adequate breaks from using
the computer and ensuring that the screens comply with the
regulations. Also, ensuring that the positioning of the chair and the
computer is appropriate for the user and providing foot rests, when
required. Some organisations will give special advice to their
employees on these matters. When I worked at Clifford Chance, an
international law company, for example, they had specialised staff
who would come round to each employee individually, and discuss
their ergonomic needs, if the employee requested this. Having
enough light and having plants in the room can also be important
factors. As Kallman and Grillo say: Ergonomics is concerned with the physical work environment. The
question is, how far should an organization go to be “ergonomically
sound”? For example, what is required to provide data entry clerks with a healthful work area? How can a firm create an environment that
results in minimal eyestrain, guards against back problems, prevents repetitive-motion syndrome, and protects against exposure to possibly
harmful CRT (cathode-ray tube) emissions?
(Kallman and Grillo,
Without such ethical/moral awareness and taking the necessary
action, many workers will suffer health problems directly from I.T.,
such as back problems, eyestrain and eye infections and repetitive
strain injury (RSI).
3.2.8 Job displacement/work pressures imposed on
Computers are changing the face of the work scene. For some
people, their jobs are becoming redundant or they have to play
quite different roles, and others are suffering increasing levels of
stress from work pressures. Others are, obviously, reaping the
benefits of having more rewarding jobs, and there is certainly more
emphasis on knowledge, information and I.T. skills than ever
before. However, this all clearly poses various ethical issues. Should
those that lose their jobs be compensated? How can the pressure be
eased on those that are suffering stress? Is it acceptable for
computer programmers to be made redundant ‘on the spot’ etc?
There are many ethical issues that need to be addressed here. 3.2.9 Digital divide
The digital divide poses a serious problem today. A new breed of
‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ are being created, between those that have
access and can use a computer and the Internet, and those that do
not have such access. There are clearly serious ethical implications
here. Those that do not have such access may well be discriminated
against, feel ‘socially excluded’ and miss out on many life
opportunities. As Lynch says: One of the major issues in electronic networks is the question of access: who will have access to the networks, and what kind of
information will be accessible. These questions are important because
networks offer tremendous economic, political, and even social advantages to people who have access to them. As the networks
become a larger presence in society, conflicts may arise between information “haves” and “have-nots”. Conceivably, network
communication could create greater equality by offering common access to all resources for all citizens. Already, in a few places
scattered around the country, experiments with “freenets”, network connections established through local libraries or other municipal or
local organizations specifically for people who otherwise would have no
way to use the networks, have shown that those people will, for instance, participate more in local government issues. They therefore
have a greater voice in whatever happens with a local government. Conversely, if access is not evenly distributed, it threatens to
perpetuate or deepen existing divides between the poor, who cannot afford expensive computer systems, and the better-off
This is all very concerning. However, there will always be
inequalities in some shape of form, whilst we live in global
capitalism, I would suggest. There will be both absolute and relative
poverty; absolute poverty being the state of poverty that people are
in where they lack the basic means for survival, such as food and
shelter, and relative poverty being where some members of a
society are poor relative to other members. Clearly, the digital
divide is an example of relative poverty. 3.2.10 Gender
There are also ethical issues in regard to gender and computers,
given the fact that females are often discriminated against in
various ways in this new I.T. age. As I emphasised in my article Females, computer and libraries:
The computing world is very male-dominated…For various reasons, such as early socialisation, the male-dominated computer
environment, and an apparent lack of confidence, females tend to
focus on the softer subjects. They either do not study and move into areas such as computing, mathematics and engineering at all, or if
they do many subsequently become discouraged and disillusioned and leave. Males dominate the computing world and even more
disturbingly the numbers of women going into IT are falling
Furthermore, Butcher notes the fact that: Only around 5% of young women consider the IT industry for a career; with most perceiving it as nerdy, even though girls who pick IT
(Butcher, 2003, p.6).
Also, the number of females in computing academia is low. Wade,
reporting in The Guardian
, says that: Computing degrees are notoriously male-dominated; nationally there
is an average of only 21% of women registered on them
Margolis and Fisher consider early socialisation both at home and
school, emphasising that: Childhood behaviours, however conditioned by gender socialization
and genetics, tend to set computing on the male side of the gender
(Margolis and Fisher, 2002, p.32).
Margolis and Fisher undertook some detailed research into women
and computing. They conducted over 230 interviews with over 100
male and female computer science students, during a four-year
period (from 1995-1999) at Carnegie Mellon University. In this
research they consider the fact that women’s confidence in
computing is often undermined. They refer to one participant,
Carmela, for example, who started programming when she was
about 5 years old. Carmela found that comments made by her male
classmates overwhelmed her and undermined her confidence. She
said: Then I got here and just felt so incredibly overwhelmed by the other
people in the program (mostly guys, yes) that I began to lose interest in coding because really, whenever I sat down to program there would
be tons of people around going, “My God, this is so easy. Why have you been working on it for two days, when I finished in five hours?
Furthermore, when females do work closely with computers, it is
often in the lower-level of work. As Wilding said: Why are women a tiny percentage of computer programmers,
software designers, systems analysts, and hackers, while they are the majority of teletypers, chip-assemblers, and installers, and low skilled
tele-operators that keep the global data and infobanks operating?
(Wilding, und., p.2).
Also, computer screens and layouts are frequently designed and
programmed by men, and they might not be ideally suited to
women, which could affect the quality of the work that women
All this clearly has serious repercussions for society. Certain aspects
of the digital divide will not only apply to the ‘haves’ and the ‘have
nots’, but also to males and females. Furthermore, men tend to
obtain the better quality I.T. jobs, earn more money, and make far
more of the important decisions in relation to I.T. Basically, men
are driving the I.T. age forward, whereas females are playing more
passive roles, confined to working with the systems that men have
already created, but which might not be ideally suited to them.
These are all ethical issues that people should be made more aware
of, and efforts need to be made to try to remedy the situation.
Nanotechnology presents a new set of ethical dilemmas. Colvin
says: For the past decade, nanotechnologists have basked in the glow of positive public opinion. We’ve wowed the public with our ability to
manipulate matter at the atomic level and with grand visions of how we might use this ability. All this ‘good news’ has created a growing
perception among business and government leaders that
nanotechnology is a powerful platform for twenty-first technologies
(Colvin, 2002, p.1).
Nanotechnology could help humankind and help to provide
adequate food and shelter. On the other hand, it could be very