Computer & Information Ethics

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Historical Background

In the industrialized nations of the world, the “information revolution” has significantly altered many aspects of life (banking and commerce, work and employment, medical care, national defense, transportation and entertainment). Consequently, information technology has begun to affect community life, family life, human relationships, education, freedom, and democracy. Information ethics in the broadest sense can be understood as the branch of applied ethics, which studies and analyzes such social and ethical impacts of information technology.


A very useful resource:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Generally speaking, ethics is the conscious reflection on our moral beliefs and attitudes. Ethics is the field of study concerned with questions of value. That is, judgments about what human behavior are “good” or “bad”. An ethical issue is said to arise whenever one party in pursuit of its goals engages in behavior that significantly affects the ability of another party to pursue its goals. If the actions are helpful then it is determined to be a good and just pursuit. However, if the behavior is harmful then the pursuit becomes bad and unjust, or in other words, unethical.

Throughout relatively recent history, the development of technology has drastically changed life and thought. It is evident that new technologies have completely transformed society and in turn have affected the moral values of people. The uniqueness of human beings in society relies on the progress and expansion of technology. This reflected in the fact that an ever-growing number of life activities are heavily tied to technology.

The rapid development of technology often gives rise to previously unknown ethical dilemmas. Under these circumstances, the traditional ethical role becomes more difficult because technology also transforms human beings often altering their belief systems in profound ways. Although distribution and free access to information has a positive value, it also has negative consequences, including problems of information security, individual privacy, spammed-email-folder, improper webpages, software piracy and computer virus, to name a few. It is not the introduction of these technological developments that raise a moral issue, but the lack of concern over what happens to the people involved. Technological development tends to imply change, and often this ultimately is for the better, but we need to be concerned about what happens to the individual during such a period of change.

Technology seems to have no limit and the power of technology affects so many areas including politics, economics, business, culture, education, health service, work, leisure, and sports. Since there is no physical obstacle to the spread of information, what lingers is the appeal to both integrity and social justice. Therefore, understanding the role of moral values in information technology is essential to the design and use of these technologies.

Although technology helps humans to understand, change, and improve, the improper use and development of technology results in significant negative effects. Technology enriches life and improves living conditions, but its swift development and strong power may lead to ethical controversies such as information misuse, computer crime, and so much more. Technology brings new ethical considerations and issues to human society, necessitating that the public review and reflect on technology in order to maintain personal and social harmony.


Five Moral Dimensions of the Information Age

Information rights and obligations
What information rights do individuals and organizations possess with respect to themselves?
What can they protect?
What obligations do individuals and organizations have concerning this information?

Property rights and obligations
How will traditional intellectual property rights be protected in a digital society?

Accountability and control
Who can and will be held accountable for the harm done to individual?
Who can and will be held liable?

System quality
What standards of data/system quality should we demand to protect individual rights and the safety of society?

Quality of life
What values should be preserved in an information and knowledge based society?
Which institutions should we protect from violation?
Which cultural values and practices are supported by the new information technology?


Difficulties & Approaches

There is little argument surrounding the belief that technology brings new ethical controversies and issues to human society. People trust technology and agree that technology results in great benefits. In fact, a vast amount of literature exists on technology development, product, and innovation. However, little exists on the review and reflection from personal and moral ethical perspectives.

Early in the information technology revolution Richard Mason suggested that the coming changes in information technologies would necessitate rethinking the social contract (Mason 1986). This change is rapid and new technologies often give rise to previously unknown ethical problems and conflicts. This is due partly to an unclear knowledge of the limits and consequences each new innovation will bring. The combination of speed and unknowns reinforces the need to deeply question the ethics of the emerging technologies as well as the entire development process. Technology ethics must also as provide a foundation for advancing and using technology in the future.

The legal theorist Larry Lessig warns that the pace of change in information technology is so rapid that it leaves the slow and deliberative process of law and political policy behind and in effect these technologies become lawless, or extralegal. This is due to the fact that by the time a law is written to curtail, for instance, some form of copyright infringement facilitated by a particular file sharing technology, that technology has become out of date and users are on to something else that facilitates copyright infringement (Lessig 1999).

Ethical problems involving computers and technology pose a special challenge for a number of different reasons. First off, there is less personal contact. Without the typical face-to-face interaction, we run the risk of becoming disjointed from the issue at hand and often see it as less important. Another issue arises due to the speed of computers. The rapid processing rate means that we are more likely to disregard the repercussions of our actions leading to possible devastating consequences. It is also important to point out that information in electronic form is more fragile than in paper form. Meaning, information in electronic form can easily be changed causing it to be vulnerable to unauthorized access and making it easy to reproduce.

Another challenge is the ethical investigation itself. Some ethical issues can be analyzed and interpreted using existing policies. However, sometimes situations arise in which adequate policies are not yet in place to guide evaluation. This is why it is important to anticipate possible consequences ahead of time in hopes to establish procedures that will minimize the damaging effects. It is difficult, or nearly impossible, however to foresee the future and to anticipate every issue that will arise. Nonetheless, a vigorous effort to expose the potential consequences needs to occur. Undeniable is the difficulty in formulating new policies from a unique situation. Without a relevant counterpart, a new ethical issue forces a new reflection and way to understand the matter in hopes to devise an appropriate policy. Collaborations among ethicists, scientists, social scientists, and technologists must be strengthened to ensure a multi-disciplinary approach when dealing with developing technology in order to provide a well-rounded analysis.

Major Issues & Concerns


Technology/Computer Crimes

Internet and digital technologies make it easier than ever to assemble, integrate, and distribute information, unleashing new concerns about the appropriate use of customer information, the protection of personal privacy, and the protection of intellectual property. Insiders with special knowledge can “fool” information systems by submitting phony records, and diverting cash, on a scale unimaginable in the pre-computer era.


Very simply put privacy is the claim of individuals to be left alone, free from surveillance or interference from other individuals or organizations, including the state. Information technology and systems threaten individual claims to privacy by making the invasion of privacy cheap, profitable, and effective. There new technologies are available to protect user privacy during interactions with websites. Many of these tools are used for encrypting email, for making email or surfing activities appear anonymous, preventing client computers from accepting cookies, or for detecting and eliminating spyware.


Identity fraud is when one person pretends to be someone else, therefore taking on a fake identity, in order to gain his victim’s trust. Often, the perpetrator of this crime convinces his victim to send money to another country.

Identity theft is a type of fraud involving a criminal that uses false pretenses to obtain sensitive information about his victim, such as credit card and bank account numbers. Typically, this is accomplished by making the victim believe he is providing this information to a company he knows and trusts. The criminal then uses the information he has gained for his own benefit, such as by purchasing products with the victim’s credit card.

Intellectual property

Normally considered to be intangible property created by individuals or corporations. Information technology has made it difficult to protect intellectual property because computerized information can be so easily copied or distributed on networks. Intellectual property is subject to a variety of protections under three different legal traditions: trade secrets, copyright, and patent law.
The proliferation of electronic networks, including the Internet, has made it even more difficult to protect intellectual property. Before the widespread use of networks, copies of software, books, magazine articles, or films had to be stored on physical media, such as paper, computer disks, or videotape, creating some hurdles to distribution. Using networks, information can be more widely reproduced and distributed.


Plagiarism is when the work of others is copied, but the plagiarizer 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.


Piracy is the illegal copying of software and has become 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.



Hackers break into, or ‘hack’ into a system. Hacking can be undertaken for a variety of reasons and several subcultures of hackers have emerged. The hacker culture began in the 1960s and 1970s as an intellectual movement exploring the unknown and doing what others cannot. Many hacker subcultures developed independently and in parallel at various universities throughout the United States including Stanford, MIT, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley, and many others. The completion of the ARPANET linked these campuses and they were able to share their collective experiences, their knowledge, humor and skills. Together, they formed the first hacker culture. Many hackers are true technology buffs that enjoy learning more about how computers work and consider computer hacking an “art” form. They often enjoy programming and have expert level skills in one particular program. For these individuals, computer hacking is a real life application of their problem-solving skills. It’s a chance to demonstrate their abilities, not an opportunity to harm others.


Clearly writing and spreading virus programs are unethical acts because they have very serious consequences and cause systems to crash and organizations to cease operating for certain periods. One of the most concerning consequences of such actions is when viruses interrupt the smooth functioning of an organization such as a hospital, which could in extreme cases even cause people to die. Logic bombs are also sometimes planted. A computer virus or malware is a commonly used term to describe all types of malicious software including Trojans, worms, adware, and spyware. Each have slightly different functions, but usually either try and damage the software on your computer, or send information about your computer usage to an outside source over the internet.


> Trojans: Pretends to be something good, like virus scanning software or other useful applications but in reality they run malicious programs in the background that can perform any number of functions, like allowing an outside user to copy your files, see your browsing history, or even take remote control of your computer.

> Worms: A self-replicating computer program. It uses a network to send copies of itself to other computers on the network, and it may do so without any user intervention. It does not need to attach itself to an existing program. Worms almost always cause at least some harm to the network, if only by consuming bandwidth.

> Adware: Advertising-supported software is any software package, which automatically plays, displays, or downloads advertisements to a computer after the software is installed on it or while the application is being used. The developer usually sees Adware as a way to recover development costs, and in some cases it may allow the software to be provided to the user free of charge or at a reduced price. As a result, the user may see the advertisements as interruptions, annoyances or as distractions from the task at hand.

> Spyware: Computer software that is unknowingly installed on a personal computer to collect information about a user, their computer or browsing habits without the user’s informed consent. Spyware programs can collect various types of personal information, such as Internet surfing habits and sites that have been visited, but can also interfere with user control of the computer in other ways, such as installing additional software and redirecting Web browser activity. Spyware is known to change computer settings, resulting in slow connection speeds, different home pages, and/or loss of Internet or functionality of other programs.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center

The IC3 was established as a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center to serve as a means to receive Internet related criminal complaints and to further research, develop, and refer the criminal complaints to federal, state, local, or international law enforcement and/or regulatory agencies for any investigation they deem to be appropriate. The IC3 was intended, and continues to emphasize, serving the broader law enforcement community to include federal, as well as state, local, and international agencies, which are combating Internet crime and, in many cases, participating in Cyber Crime Task Forces.

Social Impacts

Information technology is now ubiquitous in the lives of people across the globe. New and developing technologies take many forms such as personal computers, smart phones, the Internet, social networks, mobile phone applications, digital assistants, and cloud computing. In fact the list is growing constantly and new forms of these technologies are working their way into every aspect of daily life so much so that these technologies are even opening up new ways of interacting with each other.

Value for life is a basic concept of traditional ethics and now technological developments influence and change life, thought, moral values, and ethical principles of people. Some technological advancements have even caused natural life to become somewhat synthetic. Today technology is not only a passive instrument at our disposal, but also an active agent that affects and transforms both the scenario and the people involved in it.

Digital Divide


The benefits of technology have not spread evenly around the world and to all socioeconomic demographics. Certain societies and social classes have little to no access to the information easily available to those in more well off and developed areas. Computers, information, knowledge and access to these resources either through personal ownership, educational institutions or via public libraries are inequitably distributed along ethnic and social class lines. This disproportionate gap of access is referred to as the digital divide. According to Edutopia, a similar situation exists in U.S. schools. Schools in high-poverty areas are less likely to have computers, high-quality educational technology programs, or Internet access available for their students. Left uncorrected, the digital divide could lead to a society of information haves, computer literate and skilled, versus a large group of information have-nots, computer illiterate and unskilled.

Social Networks

Social networking is a term given to sites and applications that facilitate online social interactions that typically focus on sharing information with other users. Along with privacy concerns, there are a number of moral values that these sites call into question including security concerns, anonymity, inappropriate marketing tools and use, on-line bullying, stalking, and they can even change or challenge our notion of friendship.

A recent USA Today article addressed the issue of the social media's influence and concluded, "Just as our daily lives are becoming more technologically connected, we're losing other more meaningful relationships. Yes, we're losing our friends." In other words, electronic “friends” are replacing the joys of real human contact. Possibly questioning or eliminating the kind of true friendships described and espoused by Aristotle who described a friend as being “a single soul dwelling in two bodies”. In our post-modern society, there is evidence that while we have plenty of acquaintances, more and more of us have few individuals to whom we can turn and share our authentic selves, our deep intimacies. Another potential worry is that in the midst of a socially-networked world we are falsely reassured or justified as we seek to navigate the sea of so-called "friends" that we've been promised through various social networking sites.

At the turn of the century the term web 2.0 began to surface and it referred to the new way that the World Wide Web was being used as a medium not only for information sharing and collaboration, but also referred to the change in mindset of web designers to include more interoperability and user-centered experiences on their websites. This term has also become associated with “social media” and “social networking.” While the original design of the web by its creator Tim Berners-Lee was always one that included notions of meeting others and collaboration, users were finally ready to fully exploit those capabilities by 2004 when the first web 2.0 conference was held by O'Reilly Media.

This change has meant that a growing number of people have begun to spend significant portions of their lives online with other users experiencing an unprecedentedly new kind of lifestyle. Social networking is an important part of many people’s lives now where massive numbers of people congregate on sites like Facebook and interact with friends old and new, real and virtual. The Internet offers the immersive experience of interacting with others in virtual worlds where environments constructed from information.

Online Games and Virtual Worlds

The computer has evolved from a tool used solely for business, research and governmental purposes to an instrument characterized by social interaction in virtual worlds. In this context, like-minded people can converse and interact online in a way that is both enjoyable and satisfying. While most activities carried out over the Internet are innocuous, others could be considered questionable. These activities are characterized by user-initiated actions frequently detached from the fear of consequence that might be realized in the physical world. Illegal file-sharing, the possibility of sending spam to millions, and the accessibility of explicit adult-oriented materials are examples of potentially devastating behaviors that can adversely affect millions of users, businesses and organizations.

Virtual Worlds

Social interaction online is clearly changing and changing at a rapid pace. There is a growing shift of information presented online with a strong emphasis on visualization, user created content and social interaction. Many users are turning towards virtual worlds to collaborate, share information and spend time online. This movement is facilitated by the improvements in hardware and rise of new applications and technologies. Much like most technologies, these environments have potential for immense advantages over traditional methods. On the flip side, issues of security and several other concerns associated with virtual environments are present and unfortunately remain overlooked.

Virtual worlds engage millions of people and the avatars they create can inherently be problematic. The embodiment of a user through an avatar and its experiences in a synthetic environment are essentially considered to be real by many users. The avatar is essentially who and what the user is, and a representation on how they wish to be perceived online. One benefit is that avatars can help eliminate human inequalities such as race, disabilities or economic standings. They can even elevate social anxieties such as shyness or other insecurities. A concern however is that an inflated or false representation could lead to mistrust such as an adult appearing as a child to solicit inappropriate behavior.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games

Massively multiplayer online games provide an example of a combined online game and virtual world in which social dynamics are central to the popularity. Probably the most popular, well-known example is World of Warcraft. Such games allow thousands of individuals to play simultaneously in a tireless online world. An integral part of the gaming experience involves strategic navigation through shared space while competing with and against each other for shared resources.

In these online game worlds, players gain and lose points, abilities, and resources as they work alone or together in order to accomplish goals within the game. Consequently, this expands social context of electronic play to include identity development, community building, establishing rules of conduct, and efforts to manage conflict that occurs within game communities. The complex organization of these social structures raises ethical questions regarding personal responsibility, behavior, and expectations of each other, as well as how conflict is managed.

When contemplating online games there is a tendency for these games to portray violence. While violence is easy to see in online games, there is a much more substantial moral value at play and that is the politics of virtual worlds. Commonly, the players in massive online worlds will form assemblies and guilds often with little commitment to democracy or egalitarianism. This raises concern and needs to change if more and more people are going to spend time living in these virtual worlds. They must mimic activities of the real world so that punishments, laws, and ethical actions are not too disconnected from those of the real world.

So who is responsible for ensuring a more realistic environment? Some believe the responsibility lies on the designers of these worlds. However, many times the players create and manipulate the game in such a way to go above and beyond the original structure. Also, designers rarely realize that they are creating a space where people intend to live large portions of their lives and engage in real economic, social and political activity. Still, some believe this bequeaths certain moral duties onto designers equivalent to those who may write a political constitution (Ludlow and Wallace 2007 ).

The Power of Technology Professionals

One factor behind the rise of computer ethics is the lingering suspicion that computer professionals may be unprepared to deal effectively with the ethical issues that arise from their design, influence or even in their workplace. Another area of concern has to do with the power computer professionals have because of their knowledge of computer systems. The power poses a threat because it is entirely centralized. Most people currently do not posses even an introductory level of understanding when it comes to emerging technologies. Information and computer professionals who design and implement these tools represent the elite few who fully understand and can manipulate them. This creates fear because having power in the hands of some often leads to exploitation of others. Computer professionals should have an obligation to use the information they have access to in a proper manner, but some chose to use this information immorally to the detriment of others.


Five rules to guide those who design, develop, deploy, evaluate or use computing products:

  1. The people who design, develop, or deploy a computing artifact are morally responsible for that artifact, and for the foreseeable effects of that artifact.
  2. The shared responsibility of computing artifacts is not a zero-sum game. The responsibility of an individual is not reduced simply because more people become. Instead, a person’s responsibility includes being answerable for the behaviors of the artifact and for the artifact’s effects after deployment, to the degree to which these effects are reasonably foreseeable by that person.
  3. People who knowingly use a particular computing artifact are morally responsible for that use.
  4. People who knowingly design, develop, deploy, or use a computing artifact can do so responsibly only when they make a reasonable effort to take into account the people, relationships, surroundings, customs, assumptions and protocols within the system that the artifact is embedded.
  5. People who design, develop, deploy, promote, or evaluate a computing artifact should not explicitly or implicitly deceive users about the artifact or its foreseeable effects.



Social aspects of informatics are becoming more and more important as computers are a persuasive element in our daily life. The study of computer ethics is an important aspect in the education of future professionals. Some of the worries of the society involving computers only reflect the most noticeable aspects on the use of informatics. Besides the issue of the privacy of the data and the consequences of severe defects in software, there are ethical issues in many aspects of software development. For example, the decisions of when to stop testing, or when to release a software product convey a certain amount of subjectivity which can be decided by making use of ethical criteria.

Teaching computer ethics helps to view software development from a professional perspective. The general feeling is that moral principles and ethical behavior should be taught whenever a profession wants to be established. The analysis of the professionals’ behavior complements the technical education. But the underlying issue is how to fit the ethical concepts within the rest of the topics. Ethics can fill the holes and teaching computer ethics is a way of improving the human factors in software development and that it is worth the effort.

'Most of the unethical activity that does occur has resulted because individuals did not realize an act was unethical or did not know how to make ethical decisions’
Kallman and Grillo[1993]


Computers and other informatics technologies and techniques have developed that relate specifically to healthcare and health management. Some of these advancements are the use of electronic health records, clinical decision support and prognostic systems, internet-based consumer health information, outcome measurement, and data mining.

Important ethical questions surround the use these advancements and are heavily debated since they pose a more harmful risk to the individual. Electronic health records are changing the way health information is managed, but implementation is a difficult task in which social and personal issues must be addressed. Advice produced by decision support systems must be understood and acted upon in the context of the overall goals and values of health care. Empowering health care consumers through readily available health information is a valuable use of the Internet, but the nature of the Internet environment increases the range of abuse of vulnerable patients. Data mining may impact confidentiality or lead to discrimination by identifying subgroups. All of these issues require careful examination as more and more health information is captured electronically.

Electronic Health Records

A strong incentive to adjust all forms of health care related documents, files, etc. to a digital format lies in the fact that it is much less expensive and cuts costs dramatically. For example, it is much more effective to move digital information than it is to move actual patients or laboratory samples. Proper medical treatment depends on timely access to accurate patient medical histories, laboratory results, and many other pieces of data. Problems such as missing or misplaced charts, paper-based laboratory reporting, and illegible handwriting are common roadblocks to care in which digital systems may be the answer. While the use of informatics can have enormous benefits, it is important not to degrade the quality of care received by a patient and to protect their privacy.

The fundamental basis of the doctor-patient relationship is the priority of the patient’s best interests. When a provider suggests a course of treatment, the patient can reasonably expect that the provider is suggesting what is best for the patient. Sometimes there are several reasonable courses of action that may be appropriate in a given situation and the provider will assist the patient in making choices through the process of informed consent. The concepts of best interest and informed consent derive directly from the principles of autonomy, beneficence, and non-maleficence.

Data Mining

As increasing amounts of health data become computerized, it is easy to imagine that data mining of electronic records will become the primary form of clinical research. The purpose of data mining is to identify significant patterns that would otherwise go undetected. Data mining is used in outcomes research, epidemiology, drug and genome discovery, biomedical literature searching, and many other areas. Data mining can also be used to detect unusual data patterns, which might be indicative of disease outbreaks or fraudulent activities. Electronic records containing patient information need proper protections. The HIPAA regulations incorporate procedures for such research and recognize that a breach of privacy is a form of harm. Data mining will undoubtedly provide important information for epidemiology, clinical decision support, and the practice of evidence-based medicine. As with any health informatics technique, data mining must be used with a clear understanding of the underlying goals of health care and not be used to exploit or harm patients.

Determine the quality of a medical website:
Health on the Net Foundation

The development of modern bioethics has been strongly influenced by technology. But technology itself does not determine the ethics of medicine. Technological advances need to be seen in, and judged by, the light of health care goals. The digital imperative must be resisted unless a clear benefit of computerization can be demonstrated. Technology cannot give us answers to questions that require personal and social value judgments.


Computer, information and communications technologies are indications of human civilization involving different technical, scientific, social, ethical, and cultural perspectives. Each of these technologies will become a key element of society in the near future making it easy to imagine that the ethical issues resting on each will sooner or later affect all areas, procedures, and structures.

New technologies are increasingly more complex, and typically produce new unexpected problems or ethical controversies. To satisfy desires and demands, people develop and use technology to reform and control the world. However, its influence and presence in daily life has gone beyond the imagination. Although technology improves human survival, it also causes many complicated controversies, crises, and ethical dilemmas. Reflecting and analyzing technology and its possible implications are essential. When faced with technical decisions we need to learn all we can about the issue, analyze the issue from both a technical and ethical viewpoint, and then choose a course of action that best satisfies the requirements of both. We must always remember that our choices will create change and we need to consider that possibility in all we do. Simply deciding to implement a new technology because it makes our life easier may not be the best choice.

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