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Monday, October 22, 2001



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What is computer ethics?

Raymond McLeod Jr

George Schell

JAMES H. Moor, a professor at Dartmouth, defines computer ethics as the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology as well as the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology.

Computer ethics, therefore, consists of two main activities, and the manager who is primarily responsible for these activities is the CIO. The CIO must i) be alert to and aware of how the computer is affecting society, and ii) must do something about it by formulating policies to ensure that the technology is used in the right way.

There is one point, however, that is very important: The CIO does not bear this managerial responsibility for computer ethics alone. Other top-level managers contribute as well. This firm-wide involvement is an absolute necessity in today's world of end- user computing, in which managers in all areas are responsible for the ethical use of computers in their areas. And beyond the managers, each and every employee is responsible for his or her computer-related actions.


James Moor believes there are three main reasons for society's high level of interest in computer ethics. He calls these reasons logical malleability, the transformation factor, and the invisibility factor.

Logical malleability: By logical malleability Moor means the ability to program the computer to do anything you want it to do. The computer performs exactly as instructed by the programmer.

It is this logical malleability that frightens society. But society is not really fearful of the computer. Rather, it is fearful of the people behind the computer, those telling it what to do.

The transformation factor: This concern over computer ethics is based on the fact that computers can drastically change the way we do things.

We can see this transformation of duties in firms of all types. A good example is electronic mail. E-mail does not simply provide another way to make a telephone call. It provides an entirely new means of communication. Similar transformations are eviden t in the way in which managers conduct meetings. Whereas managers once had to congregate in one physical location, they can now meet in the form of a video conference.

The invisibility factor: The third reason for society's interest in computer ethics is because all of the computer's internal operations are hidden from view. Invisibility of internal operations provides the opportunity for invisible programming values, invisible complex calculations, and invisible abuse.

* Invisible programming values are those routines that the programmer codes into the program that may or may not produce the processing the user desires. During the course of writing a program, the programmer must make a series of value judgments as to h ow the program should accomplish its purpose. This is not a malicious act on the part of the programmer but, rather, a lack of understanding.

A good example of the impact that invisible programming values can have is the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. The plant operators had been trained in handling emergencies by using a mathematical model. The model was designed to simulate single malfu nctions. What happened, however, was that multiple malfunctions occurred simultaneously. The computer's inability to give the users what they needed was due to this invisibility factor.

Invisible complex calculations take the form of programs that are so complex that users do not understand them. A manager uses such a program with no idea of how it is performing its calculations.

* Invisible abuse includes intentional acts that cross legal as well as ethical boundaries. All acts of computer crime fall into this category, as do such unethical acts as invasion of individuals' right to privacy and surveillance.

Society is, therefore, very concerned about the computer -- how it can be programmed to do practically anything, how it is changing many of the ways we do things, and the fact that what it (Ices is basically invisible). Society expects business to be gui ded by computer ethics and thereby put these concerns to rest.

Social rights

Society has certain rights when it comes to computer use.

Rights to the computer: The computer is such a powerful tool that it cannot be kept from society. Deborah Johnson, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, believes that society has the right to computer, access, computer skills, computer special ists, and computer decision-making.

Right to computer access: It is not necessary for everyone to own a computer, just as not everyone has to own a car. However, computer ownership, or access, might be the key to achieving certain other rights. For example, access to a computer might be th e key to getting a good education.

Ben Shneiderman, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, took a good look at the computing profession after the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and recognised that ``software applications can easily be an aid to improving education, providin g skills training, reducing adult illiteracy, improving community organisations, supporting entrepreneurs, and much more''. A society that is viewed in this light has the right to computer access.

Right to computer skills: When computers first came on the scene, there was widespread fear on the part of workers that the result would be mass layoffs. That did not happen. In fact, the computer has created more jobs than it has eliminated. Not all job s require computer knowledge or computer use, but many do. In preparing students to work in a modern society, educators often regard computer literacy as a necessity.

Right to computer specialists: It is impossible for any one person to acquire all the necessary computer knowledge and skills. Therefore, we should have access to those specialists who can provide what we need, in the same manner that we have access to d octors, lawyers, and plumbers.

Right to computer decision-making: Although society does not participate to a great degree in the decisions that are made concerning how the computer is applied, it has that right. This is true when the computer can have a harmful effect on society. Thes e rights are reflected in the computer laws that have been enacted to govern how computers are used.

In Johnson's view, social responsibility for ethical computer use can be achieved by satisfying society's rights in terms of the computer as a tool.

Rights to information: The most widely publicised classification of human rights in the computer area is Richard O. Mason's PAPA. Mason, a professor at Southern Methodist University, coined the acronym PAPA to represent society's four basic rights in ter ms of information. The letters in PAPA stand for privacy, accuracy, property and accessibility.

Right to privacy: Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is credited with recognising ``the right to be let alone''. Mason feels that this right is being threatened because of two forces. One is the increasing ability of the computer to be used for surveil lance, and the other is the increasing value of information in decision-making.

The federal government addressed a portion of this problem in the Privacy Act of 1974. However, that act only covers violations by the government.

According to Mason, decision makers place such a high value on information that they will often invade someone's privacy to get it. Marketing researchers have been known to go through people's garbage to learn what products they buy, and government offic ials have stationed monitors in restrooms to gather traffic statistics to be used in justifying expansion of the facilities.

These are examples of snooping that do not use the computer. The general public is aware that the computer can be used for this purpose, but it is probably not aware of the ease with which personal data can be accessed. If you know how to go about the se arch process, you call obtain practically any types of personal and financial information about private citizens.

Right to accuracy: The computer is given credit for making possible a level of accuracy that is unachievable in non-computer systems. The potential is certainly there, but it is not always reached. Some computer-based systems contain more errors than wou ld be tolerated in manual systems. In many cases, the damage is limited to only a temporary irritation, such as when you must call about the bill you have already paid. In other cases, the cost is much greater.

Right to property: Here we are talking about intellectual property, usually in the form of computer programs. We have seen that users who have purchased the rights to use prewritten software often copy it illegally, sometimes for resale. In other cases, one software vendor may clone a popular product of another vendor.

Software vendors can guard against theft of their intellectual property by means of copyrights, patents, and license agreements. Until the 1980s, software was covered by neither copyright nor patent laws. Now, however, both can be used to provide some de gree of protection. Patents provide especially strong protection in the countries where they are enforced because it is not necessary that a clone match the original version exactly for copyright protection to be obtained.

Software vendors try to plug up the loopholes in the laws by means of the license agreements that their customers accept when they use the software. Violation of the agreements puts the customers in court.

Right to access: Prior to the introduction of computerised databases, much information was available to the general public in the form of printed documents or microform images stored in libraries. The information consisted of news stories, results of sci entific experiments, government statistics, and so on. Today, much of this information has been converted to commercial databases, making it less accessible to the public. To have access to the information, one must possess the required computer hardware and software and pay the access fees. In light of the fact that a computer can access data from storage much more quickly and easily than any other technology, it is ironic that a right to access is a modern-day ethical issue.

The social contract of information services: Mason believes that to solve the problems of computer ethics, information services should enter into a social contract that ensures the computer will be used for social good. Information services enters into t he contract with individuals and groups that use its information output or are affected by it. The contract is not in writing but is implicit in everything that information services does.

The contract stipulates that:

* The computer will not be used to unduly invade a person's privacy.

* Every measure will be taken to ensure the accuracy of computer processing.

* The sanctity of intellectual property will be protected.

* The computer will be made accessible to society so that its members can avoid the indignities of information illiteracy and deprivation.

In sum, the information services community must assume responsibility for the social contract that emerges from the systems we design and implement.

(Edited extracts from Management Information Systems. Book courtesy: Word Power, Chennai.

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