Learning IT right from wrong

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 backup 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. 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 fulfil the criteria for her degree in business administration. Esty, now director of strategic alliances at digitalESP, an e-business solutions provider, 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 organisation. "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. 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, 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 analyse 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 Smith says.

After realising 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 a nationally syndicated television series and founder of Sky Television.

Right and wrong, just in time

So just when did morality become entwined with the computer profession? Dr Dianne Martin, 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 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 isn't waiting for a new curriculum directive. The school requires all computer science students to take a computer ethics course.

Tamara Maddox, GMU computer ethics professor, says it's imperative for students to be aware of technical virtues. Undoubtedly, they will some day 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 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 Dr Don Gotterbarn, professor of computer and information science at East Tennessee State University. "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 aircraft be able to fly? What would the financial ramifications be? This lack of foresight brought 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 non-professionals. 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.

Classroom antics

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 non-philosopher," GeoTrust's Martin explains.

Often "values clarification" is first on the class agenda. Students must realise, 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 realised 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."

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