Learning IT right from wrong
A SYSTEMS ANALYST becomes aware of illegal activity -- fraud, money laundering,
evasion of taxes -- at his company. After a late night of work, the analyst breaks the
network's security code and examines confidential files. A few days later, an envelope
containing several thousand dollars appears on his desk.
Elsewhere a software developer spends months working on a new program. She devises
a scheme to take vengeance upon those who illicitly copy her code. Her program's
protection feature allows only one back-up copy. Attempts to make additional copies
corrupt the source disks and wipe clean any accessible hard disks or floppies.
Scary? Computer science students are tackling these and other moral dilemmas in
computer ethics courses on college campuses this fall. The problems cited above are
from Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing by Tom
Forester and Perry Morrison, published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Universities have heard the ethics call. To earn the Computer Science Accreditation
Board seal of approval, a university's computer science curriculum must
include "sufficient coverage of social and ethical implications of computing" -- a
significant evolution since the first computer science curriculum taught in 1968.
Ethics go to work
Cynthia Esty took a computer ethics course in the late 1980s to fulfill the
criteria for her degree in business administration. Esty, now director of strategic
alliances at digitalESP, an e-business solutions provider, in Raleigh, N.C., had no
idea how the principles of technological integrity would dictate her career.
Esty decides with which companies digitalESP will partner. Part of this process
includes examining the morals and values found in the potential partner's
organization. "We incorporate [ethics] in everything we do. It's woven into our
corporate environment. We don't want to work with people we don't trust." If Esty feels
a company's principles are not up to par, the business is downgraded to vendor.
On the other hand, Michael Cohen admits he has yet to face an ethical dilemma as a
software architect at Roanoke Technology, an online procurement software leasing
company, in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. This May, Cohen earned two bachelor's degrees: one in
computer science, the other in mathematical sciences.
As part of his studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Cohen took a four-
week computer ethics course. At the first class meeting, Cohen and the other students
were building a philosophical framework from which to analyze issues of piracy,
hacking, Internet privacy, and encryption regulations.
Despite addressing such high-profile problems, Cohen has yet to see how school and
work intertwine on the ethics front. "I have only been working for a short time so I
wouldn't say that the ethics coursework has come much into play in my professional
life," he said.
Cohen's boss has a different take. The new breed of ethically enriched techies has
left a mark at the office, CEO David L. Smith says.
After realizing the company needed to monitor e-mail habits, Smith says his first
inclination was to simply read the e-mail of employees he suspected were goofing off on
company time. But instead of stepping into a privacy and ethics quagmire, "two of our
programmers put their heads together and came up with a way that made that
unnecessary," Smith says.
The morally driven solution led to the company installing a system to warn
management when an employee sends or receives a certain amount of e-mail to or from the
same address. This gives the manager, Smith says, an opportunity to counsel the
employee without having to read the e-mail.
Many business owners, computer and software experts, and academics agree that
having high ethical standards is important for future IT professionals to
possess. "Today's students have incredibly powerful tools at their disposal --
unprecedented technological advances empowering them to change our society, for better
or worse. It is absolutely essential that they be schooled in the fundamentals of
ethics to ensure their skills are applied appropriately," says Mark Bunting, host and
executive producer of the nationally syndicated television series "The Computer Guy"
and founder of Sky Television, a producer of technology-related television and in-
Right and wrong, just in time
So just when did morality become entwined with the computer profession? C. Dianne
Martin, Ph.D., a former computer ethics professor, recalls 1991 as the year
professionals and others began to discuss the implications of not educating IT
professionals about ethical and social responsibilities.
In the nine years since, the IT industry has changed dramatically and trust has
become a real IT issue -- and an industry within the industry. Martin works in the
new "trust" field. She defines corporate policies and practices for GeoTrust, a
Portland, Ore.-based company that provides buyers and sellers with access to an e-
commerce participant's trust profile.
Martin is not alone in charging the industry with ethical responsibilities. Major
players have entered into the discussion. Martin says a new computer science curriculum
will be drawn up next year by the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute
of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., isn't waiting for a new curriculum
directive. The school requires all computer science students to take a computer ethics
Tamara Maddox, GMU computer ethics professor, says it's imperative for students to
be aware of technical virtues. Undoubtedly, they will someday be faced with dilemmas
that may redefine Information Age values. "They will not be aware of how to handle
these issues if they have never thought of them before," she says.
Maddox, a lawyer and former software developer, wants her students to be prepared.
Her Computer Ethics 105 students must participate in group discussions and projects and
write research papers. Topics range from piracy to negligence in software testing, and
Internet freedom of speech vs. pornography, which she describes as "an age-old issue
with a new face."
Development of low quality software is a real ethical problem for the IT industry,
says Don Gotterbarn, Ph.D., professor of computer and information science at East
Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn. "When you let the schedule change
the quality of software you develop, that is an ethical issue," he says. For example,
says Gotterbarn, two years ago a computer expert did not program an incubator
thermostat properly. The inaccuracy reportedly resulted in the death of two infants.
Although such a high profile example is emotionally charged, GeoTrust's Martin says
you do not have to reach that far to find other examples of how ethics have played out
in the industry. Think back to January of this year.
The Y2K bug is a classic lesson of the lack of social and ethical awareness among
the computing industry professionals, Martin says. Years ago, says the former computer
ethics professor, developers thought little about future implications of their work:
Would airplanes be able to fly? What would the financial ramifications be? This lack of
foresight brougght problems of global significance.
Martin's academic colleague, Gotterbarn, sees another important event in the
ethical history of the IT industry -- powerful and fast computers in the hands of
nonprofessionals. This, Gotterbarn says, has made an enormous impact on how the
discipline of computer science is now being taught. "We used to teach computing in only
technical terms -- devoid of humanity. But they [students] did not get an immediate
sense that their computing affects people. Every decision a computer professional makes
impacts other people, either colleagues or laymen," Gotterbarn says.
Gotterbarn remembers that when computer ethics courses first hit campuses, stock
fraud made up the majority of the classes' "wow stories." Now technological
developments in computing have impacted where computing power can be applied, and this
has led to an enormous change in the way ethics is discussed in classes, he adds.
Just a few years ago, professors would cover a single, neat issue every week --
equity, hacking, and security. Today deeper levels are uncovered. "Now we go into a
little bit of philosophy for the nonphilosopher," GeoTrust's Martin explains.
Often "values clarification" is first on the class agenda. Students must realize,
Gotterbarn says, that they arrive in class holding their own standards and ethics. Then
with the ethics lightbulb on, the computer professionals' code of ethics is introduced.
Once students have grasped a framework, social scenarios are given. Then they can begin
to uncover if something is "not quite right."
Preventing problems should be the focal point in computer ethics courses, Roanoke
Technology's Smith says. With his e-mail dilemma, he realized that most managers do not
want to monitor personal communications from work. But if productivity falls, they have
a responsibility to find out why. He calls this work problem a "two-edged sword."
Ethics instruction in computer science departments will undoubtedly continue.
Martin hopes professors will teach the course in a more integrative and robust way than
in recent history. "Ethics should be taught in many classes instead of being solely
focused as a separate course," Martin says. Experts agree that by having standards of
conduct ingrained into the computer science students' minds, the wish of every
professor, employer, and manager will come true. Errors will be self-caught before they
develop into moral catastrophes.
Will an education in ethics bring an end to the computer industry's dilemmas? No,
Sky Television's Bunting says. "There will always be an element of our society who
crosses the line and disregards such boundaries."