What Is Computer Ethics, & What Are Computer Ethics Issues?

By David NaarLast Updated Apr 13, 2021 10:20:00 PM ET
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As computers continue to transform our lives, studies surrounding computer ethics are becoming more critical than ever before. While ethics aren't always as legally enforceable as laws, they're designed to provide a set of guidelines that benefit the common good when everyone understands and applies them. This is true in many aspects of everyday life — and it also applies to the ways we conduct ourselves when interacting online.

If you’re interested in gaining a better understanding of the ways ethical principles — specifically those that are designed to apply to people’s use of the internet — should play out, take a look at the 10 commandments of computer ethics. Reviewing these, along with computer ethics issues and some case scenarios that demonstrate why ethical issues may or may not always be cut and dry, can boost your understanding of behavior in the digital age.

What Are the 10 Commandments of Computer Ethics?

Interestingly, there’s a set of guidelines known as the 10 commandments of computer ethics that are written in a tone similar to that found in the King James Bible. These weren't handed down by a higher power, however, but were created by the Computer Ethics Institution, a project by the Washington, D.C.,-based Brookings Institute, which conducts research into global policies for a variety of fields.

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The commandments first appeared in a paper titled "In Pursuit of a 'Ten Commandments' for Computer Ethics," which Ramon C. Barquin originally published in 1992. Barquin created the commandments to provide "a set of standards to guide and instruct people in the ethical use of computers." These guidelines are still widely quoted to this day and read as follows:

Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.

Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.

Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files.

Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.

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Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.

Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid (without permission).

Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.

Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.

Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.

Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for others.

Computer Ethics Issues

The 10 commandments of computer ethics were developed in the hopes of addressing the many ethical concerns that come along with the surging impact of technology on modern life. There’s a variety of common ethical issues you may encounter online, some of which are more common than others.

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Information and Privacy: Total privacy has more or less become a thing of the past for anyone who participates in social media. Now, people offer up a vast amount of information about themselves online, sometimes with little regard for who’s able to access it. Consequently, personal boundaries have blurred as a large amount of information about most people is now readily available on the internet. This raises issues in determining what constitutes normal interactions with someone and what violates their privacy.

Copyright Issues: The internet has also made traditional copyright laws notoriously harder to enforce. While there’s a set of licenses (public domain, creative commons, copyright) that are designed to determine who can use certain pieces of media (and to protect those media), the internet is still in a bit of a Wild West phase as far as actual enforcement goes. Ethically, this is a hard area to address, especially in instances when unlicensed media are shared on social networking sites in a way that may appear more or less harmless.

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Computer Crime: Recent advancements in technology have additionally given rise to a whole new breed of crime. With websites commonly offering online payment options, credit card details and other personal information are arguably harder to protect than ever before. It's now possible to have your entire identity stolen by someone you've never even physically come into contact with. While online payments undoubtedly make life easier, they also come with a measure of risk.

Human Interaction: This is one of the trickiest computer ethics issues to address because there are so many different aspects involved. While social media, emailing and chat rooms have given humans a whole new means of connecting, they've also radically changed how we interact with each other. As a new generation of kids can often be found glued to the nearest screen, questions about the potential long-term effects of virtual relationships and dependence are becoming more glaring.

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Computer Ethics Case Studies

The 10 commandments of computer ethics seem reasonable on the surface. They're designed to uphold the importance of trustworthy business practices, protect individual users by addressing information privacy concerns and encourage developers to think about the ramifications of their programs for society at large.

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Yet some academics have argued that the commandments are too broad and don't cover some of the more common computer-ethics conflicts. The reality is that computer ethics don't always conform to a traditional black-and-white version of right and wrong but tend to present a large number of "grey" scenarios. Let's take a look at several examples.

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Among the more obvious examples are social media companies and the thin lines they often toe between violating the majority of the commandments and offering broader connection opportunities. It's now no secret that such programs are developed to be purposely addictive, can track users to gauge their interests and can be used to organize violence. One recent example of the latter was seen in the Capital riots of January 2021. This has led to questions about whether social media should be regulated — and, if so, by whom?

Another prominent scenario involves hackers. While the very nature of hacking seems to go against most of the commandments, this isn’t always the case. In fact, some hackers are actually paid to do what they do because they can help organizations find major flaws in their security software. In this instance, commandments 1 and 10 can help clarify whether a hacker is behaving ethically in regards to their attempts to help their "hackees" and if they have authorization to conduct the hacking.

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Things get a bit trickier as far as privacy is concerned. The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 has long been a casebook scenario when it comes to the debate over technology-related ethics. Questions quickly arose about whether the act violates not only the third ethics commandment but also the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On one hand, the act gave the U.S. government a much broader scope as far as its right to gather information from and about American citizens. However, the objective of increased government surveillance was meant to be used to stop terrorists, drug traffickers and other criminals. To this day, there are still passionate arguments both for and against the PATRIOT Act.