Ethics in Information Technology & Why It's Studied

By Tina RuhlowLast Updated Apr 14, 2021 3:39:34 PM ET
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In the last decade, concerns over the ethics of technology have been brought to the forefront of information technology (IT) conversations. Often unknowingly, information technology professionals are confronted every day with various ethics scenarios, from having access to an individual's private information to having the ability to manipulate and share a big-name company’s information. So, how do ethics play into IT, and why is it important to keep studying so-called "technoethics" to ensure our computer-oriented future is as ethical as possible?

Who Is an IT Professional?

At a fundamental level, information technology is the storage, usage, manipulation, and/or transfer of information via a computer system. IT professionals play various roles in maintaining intricate computer systems, including constructing, repairing, and managing the hardware and software that make up these systems. IT professionals are also responsible for the flow of information between computer systems.

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There are different disciplines within information technology that an IT professional can focus on. Those who work in software development and programming are responsible for the development of computer coding, including code for computer applications, online websites, and devices. These tech wizards design programming that spans across multiple systems and allows for uniformity of shared tech.

Alternatively, those who work in IT support and network administration handle issues with pre-existing hardware and software. They tackle problems that arise in personal and joint computer systems, including failing network connections and viruses, and they help to find solutions as quickly as possible. They're involved in the processes that keep computer systems from crashing, such as managing network updates, improving the user interface, and handling the installation of new software.

Why Study Ethics in Information Technology?

Why is it important for ethics to be studied alongside information technology? IT professionals, by nature, have access to a boatload of sensitive information. Since they are employed in various workplaces — including healthcare, business, and banking — the information that they are able to view and manipulate can raise security issues.

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That is, many IT pros are able to access information that gives them a degree of power over an individual or a group, even if they have no direct intentions to use this power over anyone. Chances are, many good-natured IT professionals may not consider the ways in which this power could be abused.

Despite the very real breaches of privacy that can occur in IT work, there is currently no standard policy of IT ethics. IT pros may not realize the ethical questions that factor into the daily motions of their jobs. By studying ethics alongside IT, professionals can become more aware of the lines that they should not cross and avoid causing damage to their employers, clients, or even themselves.

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Applying codes of ethics in IT can help minimize harm and prevent the misuse of sensitive information. This branch of ethics, dubbed "technoethics" — that is, the overlap between technology and ethics — can keep IT professionals from slipping into ethically murky territory as our technology-focused world continues to expand.

Ethical Issues in Information Technology

What are some of the ethical issues that professionals may run into working in information technology?

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Privacy: IT professionals have access to a substantial amount of personal information, often including individual's email accounts, business or banking information, healthcare info, and more. Although most IT pros don't go snooping around for this information, these techs are able to access this info while working on an individual or interconnected computer system. This can raise concerns of personal and company-wide privacy. Is it ethical to view this information, and potentially share this information with company heads or managers?

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Data Sharing: Since the expansion of technology has allowed our personal browsing data to become accessible to networks and IT companies (e.g., getting targeted ads from online stores), many tech companies have the opportunity to sell this data to businesses that can cater a more individualized web experience to clientele. While this may seem harmless, some consider it unethical to sell an individual's web data without their direct consent.

Workplace Control: Interfering in technology and data on behalf of a company exercises control over employees. Having access to their personal information and being able to manipulate, delete, or expose this information can result in the potential of non-ethical monitoring that may make employees feel distrustful of their employers and tech teams.

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Security + Liability: IT professionals are often the ones left cleaning up the messes of hackers and viruses, but how much can one promise to protect a company against? IT pros who help with security concerns must be careful not to make unfounded promises (e.g., "with this software, you'll never get hacked") or they may find themselves liable when breaches strike. These pros also must be transparent about the cost/labor of installing various software without convincing companies to pay extra for services that they may not need.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Programming: As AI technology grows in most websites and appliances, some IT professionals face ethical dilemmas in identifying how much information one should collect using AI bots and whether it's unethical to not communicate with a consumer that they are talking to a real person in customer support chats.

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Ethical Challenges for Informational Technology Employees

What kind of ethical problems might IT professionals run into at work? Since IT pros often have the ability to view the files, data, and emails that an individual has stored on their computer, they often face privacy dilemmas. If an individual is working in IT for a company and is able to glimpse into the applications, photos, emails, and documents of an employee at that company, should they keep an eye on downloads or emails? Is there a way to justify monitoring private information?

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Just because an IT pro can view these files doesn't mean they should; after all, you wouldn't want a coworker rifling through your personal belongings. While IT pros may justify the desire to monitor downloads to prevent the potential downloading of NSFW (not safe for work) content or viruses, failing to inform those who work for the company of the specific information that is being monitored may break some ethical guidelines.

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Another ethical issue regards accessing information about a specific company or organization. What if there is something in their files or documents that points to harmful activity? What if you end up working for their competitor down the line and can help their competitor get an edge over them?

Access to an entire network's information supplies an IT professional with substantial power, but it also demands the responsibility of weighing how gained knowledge can be used. In the case that you sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), your hands may be tied on sharing certain information.

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Ultimately, there isn't a straightforward answer for most scenarios regarding IT ethics. The study of ethics in technology is a fairly new conversation, which means that using your discretion in each situation is crucial to maintaining an ethical approach in your work. Recognizing the consequences of your behaviors, good and bad, is what will set you apart from other IT pros. Considering individual ethical dilemmas and potential solutions can help you make moral choices in any ethically foggy situation.