9.2. Information Systems Ethics

The term ethics means “a set of moral principles” or “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, n.d.). Since the dawn of civilization, the study of ethics and their impact has fascinated mankind. But what do ethics have to do with information systems?

The introduction of new technology can have a profound effect on human behaviour. New technologies give us capabilities we did not have before, creating environments and situations that have not been addressed explicitly in an ethical context. Those who master new technologies gain new power, while those who cannot or do not master them may lose power. In 1913, Henry Ford implemented the first moving assembly line to create his Model T cars. While this was a great step forward technologically and economically, the assembly line reduced the value of human beings in the production process. The development of the atomic bomb concentrated unimaginable power in the hands of one government, which then had to wrestle with the decision to use it. Today’s digital technologies have created new categories of ethical dilemmas.

Digital technologies have allowed us to aggregate information from multiple sources to create profiles of people. What would have taken weeks of work in the past can now be done in seconds, allowing private organizations and governments to know more about individuals than at any time in history. This information has value but also chips away at the privacy of consumers and citizens.

Facebook & Privacy

In early 2018, Facebook acknowledged a data breach affecting 87 million users. The app “thisisyourdigitallife”, created by Global Science Research, informed users that they could participate in a psychological research study. About 270,000 people decided to participate in the research, but the app failed to tell users that the data of all of their friends on Facebook would be automatically captured as well. All of this data theft took place before 2014, but it did not become public until four years later.

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In 2015 Facebook learned about Global Science Research’s collection of data on millions of friends of the users in the research. Global Science Research agreed to delete the data, but it had already been sold to Cambridge Analytica who used it in the 2016 presidential primary campaign. The ensuing firestorm resulted in Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testifying before the U.S. Congress in 2018 on what happened and what Facebook would do in the future to protect users’ data. Congress is working on legislation to protect user data in the future, a prime example of technology advancing faster than the laws needed to protect users. More information about this case of data privacy can be found at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (Grigonis, 2018).

Code of Ethics

A code of ethics is one method for navigating new ethical waters. A code of ethics outlines a set of acceptable behaviours for a professional or social group. Generally, it is agreed to by all members of the group. The document details different actions that are considered appropriate and inappropriate. 

Code of Ethics Example

A good example of a code of ethics is the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), an organization of computing professionals that includes academics, researchers, and practitioners. In the ACM’s code, you will find many straightforward ethical instructions, such as the admonition to be honest and trustworthy. Since this is also an organization of professionals that focuses on computing, there are more specific warnings that relate directly to information technology:

  • No one should enter or use another’s computer system, software, or data files without permission. One must always have appropriate approval before using system resources, including communication ports, file space, other system peripherals, and computer time.
  • Designing or implementing systems that deliberately or inadvertently demean individuals or groups is ethically unacceptable.
  • Organizational leaders are responsible for ensuring that computer systems enhance, not degrade, the quality of working life. When implementing a computer system, organizations must consider the personal and professional development, physical safety, and human dignity of all workers. Appropriate human-computer ergonomic standards should be considered in system design and in the workplace (Association for Computing Machinery, 1992).

One of the major advantages of creating a code of ethics is that it clarifies the acceptable standards of behaviour for a professional group. The varied backgrounds and experiences of the group members lead to various ideas regarding what is acceptable behaviour. While the guidelines may seem obvious, having these items detailed provides clarity and consistency. Explicitly stating standards communicates the common guidelines to everyone in a clear manner.

A code of ethics can also have some drawbacks. First, a code of ethics does not have legal authority. Breaking a code of ethics is not a crime in itself. What happens if someone violates one of the guidelines? Many codes of ethics include a section that describes how such situations will be handled.

In many cases, repeated violations of the code result in expulsion from the group. In the case of ACM: “Adherence of professionals to a code of ethics is largely a voluntary matter. However, if a member does not follow this code by engaging in gross misconduct, membership in ACM may be terminated” (Association for Computing Machinery, 1992). Expulsion from ACM may not have much of an impact on many individuals since membership in ACM is usually not a requirement for employment. However, expulsion from other organizations, such as a state bar organization or medical board, could carry a huge impact.

Another possible disadvantage of a code of ethics is that there is always a chance that important issues will arise that are not specifically addressed in the code. Technology is quickly changing and a code of ethics might not be updated often enough to keep up with all of the changes. A good code of ethics, however, is written in a broad enough fashion that it can address the ethical issues of potential changes to technology while the organization behind the code makes revisions. Finally, a code of ethics could also be a disadvantage in that it may not entirely reflect the ethics or morals of every member of the group. Organizations with a diverse membership may have internal conflicts as to what is acceptable behavior. For example, there may be a difference of opinion on the consumption of alcoholic beverages at company events. In such cases the organization must make a choice about the importance of addressing a specific behavior in the code.

Chapter 12: The Ethical and Legal Implications of Information Systems” from Information Systems for Business and Beyond (2019) by David Bourgeois is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Information Systems for Business and Beyond Copyright © 2022 by Shauna Roch; James Fowler; Barbara Smith; and David Bourgeois is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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