Unit 22: The 10 Commandments of Computer Ethics

Listen to the recording as you read the text. Then complete the activities.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with determining what is right and wrong. Listed below are 10 commandments to help you understand computer ethics. Anyone working in the field of IT is going to encounter a lot of ethical problems. Why? Because computers are very powerful and IT professionals are like wizards controlling this technology. We all know from watching Harry Potter movies that wizards can be good or bad, and so can IT professionals. Non-technical people are increasingly dependent and trusting of information technology. If the next 20 years is anything like the last 20 years, the future is very bright for IT workers. This is why IT professionals need to study and practice computer ethics.

People rely on computers to handle the more tedious details of their social, business, and financial lives. Imagine what would happen if an enemy or a business competitor got access to your email account, bank account, facebook profile, and company website? They could destroy your reputation in a matter of hours. This is why we need to study Computer Ethics.

The idea of Computer Ethics was invented in 1950 by MIT professor Norbert Weiner. Norbert predicted that the world would undergo “a second industrial revolution” — an “automatic age” with “enormous potential for good and for evil”. Today we live in that world! Why did he say this? Airplane drones can bomb a target while the pilot is safe in a computer room thousands of miles away. Criminals can use phishing and other social engineering techniques steal your financial information while sitting safely on another country. Companies can create confusing privacy policies to gather and use information about you without your knowledge or consent. Governments can block access to information using firewalls. These are all very serious ethical violations that happen every day.

The main concerns of computer ethics are: Internet privacy, cracking, copyright infringement, and Internet control. The Computer Ethics Institute (CEI) has laid these 10 commandments down for people to follow. Below each of the 10 Commandments, I have put some comments to help explain what the commandment means to me.

Rule #1: Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
You should not program a computer to do dangerous things to people. For example, to program a robot to kill people, make viruses, or weapons of mass destruction. What this means is that computers are not an excuse to do bad things to people. The programmer is responsible for the actions of his programs.

Rule #2: Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.
Everyone has the right to use computers. Likewise creating a computer virus is wrong because it wastes people’s time and money and destroys potentially valuable property. As the hippies used to say: “Live and let live!”

Rule #3: Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files:
It is illegal to open and read someone's real physical mail, and it is also illegal to snoop on network connections and read someones email, passwords, files, databases, etc.

Rule #4) Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
This one is obvious. Stealing is just as bad with a computer or without one. Use your IT powers for good!

Rule #5: Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
This commandment means that you shouldn’t use a computer to create false facts. For instance, photoshopping a picture to make an innocent man look guilty. Perhaps another equally important commandment should be, “Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet”. Just like in traditional media, it is a common practice to spread half-truths, exaggerations, lies, and rumors on the Internet. This is wrong.

Rule #6: Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.
Think about how hard it is to write good software. Think about all the people and costs involved. You have two choices: 1) buy a license or 2) find an open source alternative. Using pirated software not only unethical it is dangerous because of hidden malware.

Rule #7: Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources. without authorization or proper compensation.
Is it ethical to use a neighbor’s lawn mower or mixer without telling them? How about their Internet connection? No it isn’t! Is it legal or ethical to do bad things on a computer while logged in as someone else? No it isn’t! Don’t do it!

Rule #8: Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.
If you copy text or images from a website and post them on your own website it is a crime in most countries, and definitely not ethical. Why? You are causing irreparable damage to the creator of the content. Why not ‘get a life’ and create your own unique and original content? You will be much happier in the long run creating new things rather than stealing from other people.

Rule #9) Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.
Do you write software that helps people to steal, kill, spy, gamble, or spread pornography? Please ask yourself why. Is there a way you can use your IT talents for good purposes? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone was engaged in positive behavior instead of negative behavior? Think about it!

10) Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.
Things that you do ‘online’ can have real effects in your ‘offline’ life as well. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said it best, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."

Okay, that was a brief introduction to Computer Ethics. I hope you enjoyed it and it didn't sound too "preachy". I also hope that you continue to think about ethical questions throughout your IT career. It’s very important. Your career and maybe even your life can be ruined by making the wrong ethical decisions.

The original 10 commandments, minus my excellent ;) comments, can be found at this URL:
Computer Ethics Institute

Now continue to the Activities