Ethics and the IT Professional

For a University of Canberra, Information Sciences and Engineering Seminar, 13 May 2005

By Tom Worthington FACS HML


Here I discuss some real day-to-day ethical problems faced by IT professionals, with examples from my career. Professional bodies and standards help arm the professional against ethical traps.

Information Technology is a practical discipline. We build computer systems because they are useful. Ethics can help modify the behaviour of the builders of such systems to work better. These notes for the presentation draw on the 2005 version of my lecture for ANU "Perspectives on Computing" (COMP1200). The slides are available by selecting "Full Screen" or the "Projection" style in Opera, or compatible web browser.

Professor Michael Wagner presented the March seminar in this series on "Stone-Age Morality in a Silicon World", in which he discussed the theory of evolutionary ethics.

Abstract: An overview of evolutionary ethics and a discussion of some of the implications for the information technology society and beyond. Michael Wagner has a PhD in computer science and teaches information technology and software engineering at University of Canberra. His research is mainly in the area of speech science and technology. He has also served as the Chair of the University's Ethics Committee from 1996 to 2001 and has spent a part of his last study leave with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at the Australian National University, looking at questions of evolutionary ethics.

Stone-Age Morality in a Silicon World, Michael Wagner, 18th March 2005, URL:

Professor Wagner discussed IT ethical issues, such as people using the Internet to download music without paying for it. But he stopped short of explaining how the evolutionary theory could help solve this, or other IT ethics problems.

Research carried out on ethics of IT should aim for a practical outcome. If there is no practical result envisaged from the work, it should not be funded by, or endorsed, by IT professionals. Results can be long term and general (for the whole of society), but ideally will be very specific (reduce my professional indemnity insurance costs).

ACS/ARC/CAPPE ethics research

In early 2005 the ACS announced that it had joined with the Centre of Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics to research IT ethics.

The ACS has partnered with the Australian Government's Australian Research Council (ARC) the Centre of Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) and its membership universities to fund a $900k research program assessing ethics and regulation in the ICT industry. ... humanities-focused research projects usually account for only 16 per cent of university grants programs. ... how a work environment influences ethical behavior within the ICT sector. Privacy, autonomy and enforcement issues ...

The ACS & ACS Foundation announces globally ground-breaking research into ICT ethics & regulation - almost $1 million over 3 years, Media Release, 17 February 2005, URL:

IT professionals need to see this work produces useful outcomes. Just producing papers in humanities research publications is not a useful outcome. Below are some ethical challenges from my career. Will the research help with such challenges?

Example: Hosting a Mailing List

Twenty years ago ethical issues for IT professions were rare (or at least not so public). You might not have to address a serious issue in your career. The Internet has made IT much more visible and ethical issues common.

An example: A university hosts an Internet mailing list for librarians discuss use of the Internet. Lawyers demand that a posting to the list be removed saying it gives the impression their client supports child pornography. When you check, there is a posting, but it is years old and taken in context it seems fair comment. But the lawyers argue that when the average person finds this specific posting with a web search, they ardent getting the context.

What do you do? Delete any trace of the posting, thus falsifying the public record? Replace the posting with a note saying why it was deleted? Insert a correction? Invite the aggrieved part to place a correction? Tell them to go away?

This may seem a far fetched example, but is real:

A government department is trying to change history by pressuring a university to erase an internet discussion from almost three years ago.

The comments, made in an internet newsgroup in July 2000 and now archived on computers at the Australian National University, suggested the department's computers contained links to child pornography.

The South Eastern Sydney Area Health Service, which discovered the comments in October 2002, rejects the allegations as untrue and is fighting to have the comments wiped from the computer archives.

Internet feud as health service pushes to delete past, Sue Lowe, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2003, URL:

I am a member of the Link mailing list and was asked for advice on what to do. What would you do if you ran this system? How would you decide what to do? The Linker's did what they usually do and discussed the issue on-line.

Conduct and Practice

The ACS has a Code of Professional Conduct and Professional Practice, incorporating a code of ethics which requires all members to act with professional responsibility and integrity. The code is only binding on members of the ACS. But other profession bodies have similar codes. Courts and other tribunals will use such codes when considering your actions, if you carry out IT work.

Essentially the profession has a contract with the community: in return for governing our members we will protect the public interest.

The code goes into more detail on points in the ACS Code of Ethics:

  1. The Public Interest
  2. Integrity
  3. Confidentiality
  4. Objectivity and Independence
  5. Competence
  6. Keeping Up-To-Date
  7. Subordinates
  8. Responsibility to your Client
  9. Promoting Information Technology
  10. The Image of the Profession and the Society

Each individual professional must decide the correct ethical course in each case. As I tell ANU students, you may have to act against the directions of your superiors to act legally, or against the law to act ethically. Being a member of a professional body, can help. But ultimately it is for you to decide. But can the details of the code be incorporated into system development methodologies, so they are not just an add-on?

Example: Y2K (Do as I say?)

This issue arose for Y2K in 2000. There was the possibility of massive computer failure causing anything up to the end of the world. Or was there? Who should do what?

In one of life's ironies, I first issued an edict to IT professionals when I was President of the ACS, then found myself as Director of Technical Issues for Y2K at the Defence Department and had to follow my own edict:

"Media hype aside, the Year 2000 problem poses a serious risk to all computer-based systems and all IT professionals have an obligation to assess and report the extent of the problem in all systems for which they are responsible," said ACS President, Tom Worthington.

"Any ACS member who fails to take appropriate action on Year 2000 is in breach of the ACS Code of Professional Conduct and Practice. Lack of knowledge, resources, or authority to act is not a valid defence and they can be charged with professional misconduct under the rules of the Society, as well as facing possible civil or criminal proceedings."

From: ACS Calls for Greater Cooperation on Year 2000, 14 July 1997, URL:

Y2K overstated?

The general view post-Y2K was that the problem was vastly overstated. Even so part of the US military satellite system failed with a Y2K bug:

At midnight GMT on Friday, a US spy satellite system was hit by the computer bug as a ground-control station lost its ability to process the information streaming in from space...

From US satellites safe after Y2K glitch, BBC News, 3 January, 2000, 22:12 GMT, URL:

While Russia was launching ballistic missiles:

The most dramatic event, an announcement by the US military that it had detected the launch of three Russian missiles, turned out to be unrelated to the Y2K bug. Russian officials confirmed that the Scud missile launches were part of its ongoing conflict with rebels in Chechnya.

From Y2K bug fails to bite, BBC News, 1 January, 2000, 10:48 GMT, URL:

The insurance industry included questions about Y2K in policies before 2000 and removed them afterwards (when not much went wrong). How can we better make decisions about costs and benefits in such public policy issues?

Example: ACS on Regulation of the Internet

The issues to do with computer games are similar to those for Internet access. On several occasions, starting in 1995 I had to appear before Senate committees to present the ACS's position:

  1. Dialogue must encouraged between public policy makers and the on-line community to discuss workable solutions to controlling potentially offensive information ...
  2. Pre-classification of Internet material, as is done for film censorship, is unworkable,
  3. Existing laws on liability for speech and information should be revised ... to be technology neutral,
  4. Information carriers should not be held responsible for content which they are no involved in the production of,
  5. Internet software authors should be encouraged to add blocking and monitoring facilities for parents ...
  6. An education campaign on safe use of the Internet, should be conducted for parents and children,
  7. Codes of conduct for system operators should be encouraged.

From: Submission on the Regulation of the Internet, ACS, 1995, URL:

Most of these points were adopted. Perhaps the most interesting part of the process was educating the Senators in what the Internet was and how they could use it.

Internet Telephony - A Current Challenge

A less salacious but potentially more significant internet regulation issue than internet pornography will need attention in the next year: Voice Over IP (VoIP), or Internet Telephony. Within the next few years the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will be replaced with voice data over the Internet. The community needs to decide how to handle this change and make decisions on public interest issues in it. VoIP is already cost effective and used by large businesses. Homes and small businesses which have a broadband connection will find it cheaper to use that for phone calls than use the PSTN. Telephone companies will find it cheaper to carry calls over the Internet, even for the few remaining PSTN subscribers.

The danger is that the Internet voice service will not provide the same level of reliable service, nor emergency facilities, the PSTN has been built to provide. The assumption will be that the PSTN will still be there in an emergency. But if no one is paying to maintain or use the PSTN it will largely cease to exist within a few years. The community needs to make a decision as to what level of voice service they require and how to pay for it. That service then needs to be built into the new Internet infrastructure.

Example: SOCOG Case

Before working out how much notice you have to take of the client, who is the client? An extreme example is in giving evidence as an expert witness in a court case. One case I was involved with is public and can be used as an example:

... Mr Worthington... proceeded to an assessment on the basis of assumptions which in his view were reasonable. ... There is no satisfactory basis for the Commission rejecting as unacceptable the view of these two very experienced experts on matters relating to the World Wide Web. ...

Accordingly, the complaint is substantiated and it is proper for the Commission to make the following determination pursuant to s.103(1) of the DDA:

1. A declaration that the respondent has engaged in conduct that is unlawful under section 24 of the DDA in that it has provided for the use of the complainant a web site which because of his blindness is to a significant extent inaccessible. ...

Bruce Lindsay Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Disability Discrimination Act 1992, William Carter QC, No. H 99/115, 24 August 2000, URL:

An expert witness assists the Court

An expert witness is usually paid by one party, but is supposed to work for the court, not the people paying them:

1.1 An expert witness has an overriding duty to assist the Court on matters relevant to the expert's area of expertise.
1.2 An expert witness is not an advocate for a party.
1.3 An expert witness's paramount duty is to the Court and not to the person retaining the expert.

From: Guidelines for Expert Witnesses in Proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia, Chief Justice, 19 March 2004, URL:

ACS Code of Ethics Project

In my lecture on ethics I tell the students that they need to learn about ethics because it will help arm them against future problems. It will help them avoid a problem, know how to deal with a problem when it occurs and help mount a professional and legal defence if the problem cannot be solved. If professionals in general act ethically this should lower their professional indemnity insurance costs. These may seem mercenary personal considerations, but such motivations can be powerful.

In 2004 the ACS released a table of case studies referenced to clauses in the ACS Code of Ethics. This could provide valuable content for teaching ethics and as a guide to practitioners:

Case No. Summary of case ACS Code of Ethics
4.3 Values and Ideals
ACS Code of Ethics Standards of Conduct
Jean, a statistical database programmer, is trying to write a large statistical program ... uses segments of code from ... the commercial software ... 4.3.1 Priorities
4.3.2 Competence
4.3.3 Honesty
4.5.3 I must respect the proprietary nature...
4.6.4 I must respect and protect my clients'...

From: ACS Code of Ethics Project - Case Studies and their clauses in the Code, ACS, 2004, URL:

However, the table doesn't include details of who did it, why or when. As a PDF document it is difficult to present on screen to a class or to copy parts from for educational purposes. The ACS should add the missing details and reformat the table in an accessible way.


The Information Technology profession needs research to help practitioners. The ACS/CAPPE research project has made a good start on addressing practical concerns, but needs to address how to communicate the results in a form which can be used. Some ways would be to:

  1. Open Content: The research results should be available for free. Papers and other results should be available to read for free on-line. The reader should not have to purchase a subscription to a particular journal (the ACS makes its Journal and Conference Proceedings available free on-line).
  2. Accessible: The research results should be in a format which can be easily read, used for education and re-purposed. Most PDF documents are not suitable for reading on-line, display to a class or incorporating in other documents. This slows down (or stops) use of the information. Ordinary web pages are better.
  3. IT Practitioner Oriented: The research needs to address the IT industry and the practitioner in particular. What of the research results can they use to do things better?

See also: