Information Systems Ethics
The term ethics is defined as “a set of moral principles” or “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.” Since the dawn of civilization, the study of ethics and their impact has fascinated mankind. But what do ethics have to do with information systems?
The introduction of new technology can have a profound effect on human behavior. New technologies give us capabilities that we did not have before, which in turn create environments and situations that have not been specifically addressed in ethical terms. Those who master new technologies gain new power; those who cannot or do not master them may lose power. In 1913, Henry Ford implemented the first moving assembly line to create his Model T cars. While this was a great step forward technologically (and economically), the assembly line reduced the value of human beings in the production process. The development of the atomic bomb concentrated unimaginable power in the hands of one government, who then had to wrestle with the decision to use it. Today’s digital technologies have created new categories of ethical dilemmas.
For example, the ability to anonymously make perfect copies of digital music has tempted many music fans to download copyrighted music for their own use without making payment to the music’s owner. Many of those who would never have walked into a music store and stolen a CD find themselves with dozens of illegally downloaded albums.Digital technologies have given us the ability to aggregate information from multiple sources to create profiles of people. What would have taken weeks of work in the past can now be done in seconds, allowing private organizations and governments to know more about individuals than at any time in history. This information has value, but also chips away at the privacy of consumers and citizens.
Code of Ethics
One method for navigating new ethical waters is a code of ethics. A code of ethics is a document that outlines a set of acceptable behaviors for a professional or social group; generally, it is agreed to by all members of the group. The document details different actions that are considered appropriate and inappropriate.
A good example of a code of ethics is the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct of the Association for Computing Machinery,2 an organization of computing professionals that includes academics, researchers, and practitioners. Here is a quote from the preamble:
Commitment to ethical professional conduct is expected of every member (voting members, associate members, and student members) of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
This Code, consisting of 24 imperatives formulated as statements of personal responsibility, identifies the elements of such a commitment. It contains many, but not all, issues professionals are likely to face. Section 1 outlines fundamental ethical considerations, while Section 2 addresses additional, more specific considerations of professional conduct. Statements in Section 3 pertain more specifically to individuals who have a leadership role, whether in the workplace or in a volunteer capacity such as with organizations like ACM. Principles involving compliance with this Code are given in Section 4.
In the ACM’s code, you will find many straightforward ethical instructions, such as the admonition to be honest and trustworthy. But because this is also an organization of professionals that focuses on computing, there are more specific admonitions that relate directly to information technology:
• No one should enter or use another’s computer system, software, or data files without permission. One must always have appropriate approval before using system resources, including communication ports, file space, other system peripherals, and computer time.
• Designing or implementing systems that deliberately or inadvertently demean individuals or groups is ethically unacceptable.
• Organizational leaders are responsible for ensuring that computer systems enhance, not degrade, the quality of working life. When implementing a computer system, organizations must consider the personal and professional development, physical safety, and human dignity of all workers.
Appropriate human-computer ergonomic standards should be considered in system design and in the workplace.
One of the major advantages of creating a code of ethics is that it clarifies the acceptable standards of behavior for a professional group. The varied backgrounds and experiences of the members of a group lead to a variety of ideas regarding what is acceptable behavior. While to many the guidelines may seem obvious, having these items detailed provides clarity and consistency. Explicitly stating standards communicates the common guidelines to everyone in a clear manner.
Having a code of ethics can also have some drawbacks. First of all, a code of ethics does not have legal authority; in other words, breaking a code of ethics is not a crime in itself. So what happens if someone violates one of the guidelines? Many codes of ethics include a section that describes how such situations will be handled. In many cases, repeated violations of the code result in expulsion from the group.
In the case of ACM: “Adherence of professionals to a code of ethics is largely a voluntary matter. However, if a member does not follow this code by engaging in gross misconduct, membership in ACM may be terminated.” Expulsion from ACM may not have much of an impact on many individuals, since membership in ACM is usually not a requirement for employment. However, expulsion from other organizations, such as a state bar organization or medical board, could carry a huge impact.
Another possible disadvantage of a code of ethics is that there is always a chance that important issues will arise that are not specifically addressed in the code. Technology is quickly changing, and a code of ethics might not be updated often enough to keep up with all of the changes. A good code of ethics, however, is written in a broad enough fashion that it can address the ethical issues of potential changes to technology while the organization behind the code makes revisions.
Finally, a code of ethics could have also be a disadvantage in that it may not entirely reflect the ethics or morals of every member of the group. Organizations with a diverse membership may have internal conflicts as to what is acceptable behavior. For example, there may be a difference of opinion on the consumption of alcoholic beverages at company events. In such cases, the organization must make a choice about the importance of addressing a specific behavior in the code.