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by Professor Simon Rogerson

Copyright © Professor Simon Rogerson 1995
(This paper was originally published in the IDPM Journal Volume 5 No 1 1995)

Information Systems and the underpinning Information Technologies have become very powerful change agents. At a macro level they are capable of devastating industries, for example, the Swiss watch industry and creating new ones, for example, the video games industry. At the micro level they are capable of creating new ways of working, for example, the automation of production lines through robotics and the integration of jobs in the office through the use of office automation systems. We now live in an information age where geographical distances have become irrelevant and where complex super corporations are being created and supported by an IS/IT life support system. Social, political, economic and technological turbulence in the sphere of operation has put organisations under a lot of pressure in responding effectively and efficiently to the needs of its clients.

Thus, society and its organisations have undergone and are undergoing restructuring through the widespread use of IS/IT. The technological and economic rates of change related to IT are still increasing. This restructuring effects department structures, organisation hierarchies, job contents, span of control, social interaction and so on. Each aspect of this impact has an ethical dimension which cannot and should not be ignored otherwise there will be an unacceptable penalty incurred in applying IS/IT in the wrong place, in the wrong way or at the wrong time. There is a need to develop goals, social objectives and a moral framework within which the technologies can be applied in an acceptable manner.

It is plain to see that the IS/IT professional through providing the information infrastructures wields great influential power over individuals within organisations. With that power goes responsibility and obligations to society, the employer, clients, colleagues, and the profession. Actions founded on the ethical high ground are called for. For this to be achieved, it is important to understand the meaning of ethics so that actions can be kept under review regarding their ethical or unethical content.


What is ethics?

Ethics is the practice of making a principled choice between right and wrong. It is concerned with how people ought to act not how they do act. Ethics is value driven, action oriented and determined by the situation. In other words, ethics ensures that an action that is designed to achieve a certain objective will do so without violating a value. The only thing that is ever judged to be ethical or unethical is an action. The driving force in ethics is to do the right thing all the time and not to do the same thing all the time.

We need to understand that legality and ethical compliance are different. An action might be prudent and legal but may well be unethical. The development of a software system to improve the debt collecting powers of a loan shark may be legal but is it ethical to help someone who feeds off the misery of others? Professional practice is more than simply acting to the letter of the law. This moral stance can be beneficial to organisations. The most significant input in instigating change is people and their attitudes to change. Success is more likely if influential players in the change process adopt the moral high ground rather than the legal baseline as this will promote a more favourable attitude from all those involved in the change process.

There are often situations where IS/IT activity promotes morally and ethically questionable practices, for example, the invasion of privacy, restricted practices, the unnecessary loss of jobs and the disregard for intellectual property rights. The existence of an organisational mission which links purpose, strategy, corporate values and standards provides a framework for ethical behaviour. The question is whether this behaviour is acceptable to individuals and society.


Is ethics an issue?

There are numerous incidents of unethical practice occurring in IS/IT related work. A recent survey of a weekly computer trade journal in the UK revealed some interesting facts on reported unethical incidents. During a six month period from mid April, 1994 to mid October, 1994 a total of 40 separate issues relating to ethics was reported. Of these eight were general informative items, nine reported on multiple incidents of breaches and 23 reported on specific instances.

This is a serious problem which is getting some attention in the press but often when a system failure occurs or an organisation is detrimentally affected by an IS/IT event only the technical aspects are debated. For example, in the debacle over the London Ambulance Service's new system implementation, many questions were asked concerning the technical issues but little attention was given to the ethical issues of a system which had a direct impact on the well being of so many individuals.

George Edward Moore once wrote, "It appears to me that in ethics the difficulties are mainly due to the attempt to answer questions without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer". This would seem to be the case in IS/IT where reporting symptoms of unethical behaviour prevails and yet how people ought to act gains little attention. Indeed, the current focus tends to be one of outcome rather than process. A review of some of the recent literature revealed a list of issues which include: invasion of privacy, computer viruses and hacking, computer crime, software theft, and computerisation of the workplace. Discussion of how problematical are such unethical outcomes seems to preoccupy many and advice is often forthcoming on how to address these symptoms. What appears to be lacking is discussion on the root causes and how they might be curtailed.


An ethical focus for IS/IT

If we accept the need to consider the process and outcomes associated with IS/IT activity and that the current focus is heavily weighted towards symptom analysis it would appear that to redress the balance we need to consider process more carefully. In particular, there are three issues that warrant some attention; codes of conduct, project selection and systems development. Currently, codes of conduct are simply guidelines which IS/IT professionals are politely asked to adhere to. There are few, if any, instances where a breach of conduct has led to the rescinding of membership. When an unethical action comes to light a professional body should undertake an independent review to investigate whether any of its members are involved and what part they played in such action. For example, the recent police investigation of illegal software copying by Minstrel uncovered a large number of the software pirate's key customers in the UK. Professional bodies should now seek to ascertain whether these customers include any of their members and if so what was their part in these unethical transactions. In selecting projects to be funded, organisations tend to focus on economic and technical issues, little, if any, thought is given to the ethical issues raised through the commencement of a project. There are many available system development methodologies each pedalling its own particular strengths. However, the vast majority have one major weakness in that they do not have any moral dimension to them. It is totally unacceptable to assume such matters have been catered for through the established business values of the organisation in question.

The focus of ethics regarding IS/IT should comprise three dimensions. We should be concerned about how we develop systems. We should consider how advances in the technologies can be best used. Finally, we should develop strategies which promote ethical activity. This focus can be summarised by the following terms.

Ethical Development

This is concerned with the use of development methodologies and the consideration of ethical dilemmas, user education and professionalism.

Ethical Technology

This is concerned with the advances in technologies and the likely ethical issues they raise as they are applied to business and societal problems.

Ethical Application

This is concerned with developing ethical strategies which allow technology to be exploited in an ethically acceptable way


Guiding the individual

Ramon Barquin of the Computer Ethics Institute in US recently distributed a list of "dos and don'ts" entitled "The Computing Ten Commandments" as shown in Figure 1. It illustrates the type of action required of the IS/IT professional and demonstrates how difficult that can be at times.

The problem with this approach is that it is rule based and implies the need for legislation to regulate ethical behaviour. There are those who would argue that it is not possible to legislate ethical behaviour and therefore education must be relied upon to improve human behaviour. John McLeod drew up a list of generic questions to help determine the ethical nature of an action as shown in Figure 2. Such a list provides practical help for IS/IT practitioners as they strive to serve society and its organisations.

To be ethical, an action should elicit a positive response to all applicable primary questions and a negative response to each clarification.

No longer can such issues be ignored, no longer can the profession seek absolution through focusing only on the technical agenda. Indeed, the first question any IS/IT professional should ask is "Is the action ethical?" and be able to answer based on reasoned thought. Geoff Walsham wrote, "If a more self-reflective and self-critical attitude on moral issues were adopted by considerable numbers of future IS analysts, the cumulative effect would be a significant and positive societal change". We all need to act and act now!

Professor Simon Rogerson (Director)
Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility
School of Computing Sciences
De Montfort University
The Gateway
Leicester LE1 9BH
Telephone (+44) 116 257 7475
Fax (+44) 116 254 1891
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