CS Lab Ethics Resources
General Topics and Issues related to Computer Ethics
1. Computer Crime: Theft of unprotected data
If someone has not properly secured some important data, is it ethical for another person to exploit that situation and take the information? Is it not the original owner's error by not being more secure? A parallel example is the situation that if a homeowner leaves a door unlocked, does someone else have the right to enter that house? Consider a situation where someone has thrown away trash, but do others have the right to go -Dumpster Diving- to see what is there?
2. Computer Crime: Wire tapping and Eavesdropping
Should a person be allowed to monitor network activity by running a -sniffer- program that could be used grab sensitive data and password information of the other users on the system? Should an employer be allowed to monitor keystrokes and behavior patterns of employees to see that they are doing their work? What monitoring activities are appropriate, which could be considered un-ethical, and which should be considered criminal?
3. Computer Crime: Denial or Degradation of Service and Masquerading
By generating a large number of requests to a computer site, it is possible to overload the capabilities of that remote system making it impossible for valid users to access the resources. Tracing the cause of the problem can be further complicated when the actual instigator appears to be someone else. How do we handle situations like these? Are there ways to trace such crimes?
4. Computer Crime: Intellectual Property Rights and Software Piracy
How do we expect a company to make a reasonable profit if software pirates steal the programs and copy them without paying? Is it possible to support future innovation if program developers are not compensated for their time? If an unknown program is discovered to be a worthless piece of junk, should the consumer be expected to pay just to see if it might be appropriate. Open source software seems to be preferred by many users, but what is the mechanism to support an industry based on that premise.
5. Privacy: Sensitive Personal Information
Companies are collecting a large quantity of information about individuals, but what rights do the individuals have to keep that information private? If a doctor has been maintaining medical records on an individual for some health concern, does an insurance company have the right to deny coverage to that individual because of potential health risks. Could not digital information be used to monitor someone's behavior so that criminals could rob an unattended home. Are private phone conversations actually private?
6. Privacy: Directed Advertising
Is it ethical to monitor behavior and buying patterns of online customers, and use that information for directed advertisements and spam? What rights do the users have to keep that information from being passed around and sold to others? Is not directed advertising more valuable for retail outlets so that energy and effort are not wasted? What information is being collected about user preferences and how might it be used if all the information could be cross referenced? How appropriate are pyramid schemes that pay others for obtaining customers for directed advertising be viewed?
7. Privacy: Employee email privacy
What rights does an employer have with respect to private email? Should an employee be reading and writing email on company time? Doesn't the employer have a right to read and monitor personal email messages? Should the government monitor email transfers across the Internet in order to look for subversive activity? Should the schools be monitoring inappropriate email full of vulgarity and hate? How should chain letters sent through email be considered?
8. Computer Accuracy: Safety Critical Applications
As our economy becomes more and more dependent upon computer controlled devices, how much faith should be placed in the hands of software programs? Are there ways to ensure that a program is fail safe? Should a safety critical application such as a network of nuclear defense missiles or a an air traffic control system be controlled only by a computer program rather than having a human element to over ride potential consequences?
9. Computer Crime: Attacks on Software through Back Doors or Trojan Horses
Is it ethical for a developer of a program to create a back door that will allow someone to bypass multiple levels of security? If a back door exists, is it not possible that others might discover the entry parameters, therefore rendering the security features useless? Is it appropriate for a software developer to require that a customer pay a registration fee by a certain time, or the program will become inactive? What if the program destroys the customer's data in the process of inactivation? Who is wrong, the person who didn't pay the registration fee, or the person who designed the program to get back at free loaders and pirates?
10. Computer Crime: Attacks on Software through Viruses and Worms
How has the presence of viruses changed computer use? What are some of the reasons people write virus or a worm programs? Is there not an advantage for people who write virus protection software to also make certain that there are plenty of new viruses being released all the time? Why are virus programs not typically associated with Linux systems? Could the virus programs also be written by people who want to exploit a competitor's weakness in order to promote their own products? Are UNIX systems completely free of security problems?
11. Computer Crime: Attacks on People - Financial Hacks
What are some of the ways that people can hack into financial systems and steal money? Is it ethical for banks and other companies to always give themselves the financial benefit of rounding down balances and interest payments so that they get the benefit instead of the customer?
12. Computer Crime: Attacks on People - Fraud or Embezzlement
In addition to stealing credit card numbers, what are some of the ways people can be defrauded. What about -identity theft-, gaining enough information about an individual such as Social Security Number and bank numbers so that another individual in a different part of the country might assume a living person's identity, fraudulently gaining credit and running up large debts? Is it considered un-ethical, or should it be considered criminal fraud if a computer error gives someone more money than they are supposed to have, yet the person does not report the error?
13. Computer Crime: Attacks on People - Digital Forgery
Since it is possible to easily modify digital images, what are some of the ramifications of altering images to personally attack the credibility of another person? Is it not possible to modify existing images and even movies to completely misrepresent a person's situation? What rights How might digital forgery relate to legal concerns related to pornography or intellectual property rights?
14. Computer Crime: Attacks on People - Sabotage/Destruction of Data
What are some of the concerns over sabotage and destruction of data, especially in relation to a disgruntled employee? If an employee has been treated unfairly but then threatens to destroy important company records, who is to blame? Are there any safeguards against such acts?
15. Computer Crime: Attacks on People - Harassment
In addition to some of the more common ways of bothering individuals electronically, such as spamming or email flaming, are there other ways people can be harassed by computer technology? What are some of the ethical concerns about purchasing domain names that are similar to existing entities, and then holding the parent organization hostage, requiring either payment of a large fee or risk the presentation of a parallel and possibly defamatory site?
16. Computer Crime: Attacks on People - Hate Sites vs. Freedom of Speech
The First Ammendment guarantees the right of free speech, but does having the right to say whatever one desires mean that there should be no consequences for things that might be slanderous or harmful? What about web sites that promote hatred, genocide, or vulgarity? Are there any effective ways to limit access to those sites in schools or other settings? Can laws governing the behavior of people in one jurisdiction be binding upon those in another?
17. Intellectual Property: Music Software
What are some of the ways digital music is being disseminated over the Internet. Are there effective ways to minimize theft? How can we compensate musicians for their talent? Will mergers between major entertainment giants and Internet resource providers likely have an effect on the future of the digital music industry?
18. Unfair Business Practices: Market Domination by Anti-Competitive Actions
In the very competitive software market, how should we deal with unfair business strategies that force compliance with brand products? Does not that approach reduce competition and force up prices? Should it be considered a monopoly, or is it just aggressive marketing?
Some Ethical Questions to Consider
The following are some general questions to consider when researching the above topics:
• What should the penalties be with respect to violation of ethical principles? When a crime is actually committed, can we really impose judgments on individuals from another state or nation?
• Who has the responsibility and/or the authority to police computer crimes on a global basis? Who should be the -whistle blower- on ethical issues?
• When discussing what is ethical vs. what is legal, there are often differences of opinion. For instance, legal decisions can often become blurred as to what is right or wrong on a global context. An act that is illegal in one country might be perfectly legal in another. When discussing ethics, try to make a distinction as to what is the ethically RIGHT thing to do vs. what might be legally acceptable in our country.
Some web references
• ThinkQuest web site on Computer Ethics:
• ACM's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct:
• Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science:
• Centre for Applied Ethics: Resources on the WWW:
• Computer Ethics - Cyber Ethics:
• Ethics in Computing:
• IEEE Ethics Committee:
• Computer Institute's Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics:
• DePaul University Computer Ethics Links:
• Kevin Bowyer's Ethics and Computing Links:
• Teaching Ethics and Computing
• Ethics Updates by Lawrence Hinman