Computer Ethics

When looking at the economy over the past couple months there have been some interesting events: Bears Sterns, Fannie and Freddie Mae, Lehman Brothers, AIG; couple the subprime mortgage crisis with the high gas prices and you get a collection of concerned individuals. Because of this, companies and employees are trying to cut costs wherever possible; and as IT Professionals, you know how easy it is for a company to save a few extra bucks by cutting the IT budget. Why is this topic of money important or even discussed on an Information Technology blog? My answer to you would be that this has potential to test and challenge the ethics of an IT Director, CIO, System Administrator, or Helpdesk Analyst.

What is Ethics?

According to Wikipedia, “Ethics is a major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. A central aspect of ethics is “the good life”, the life worth living or life that is simply satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than moral conduct.” When applying ethics to technology, in general there are two categories: first, using technology to harm and second, using technology without permission. Using technology to harm would fall within the realm of hacking, identity theft, reading people’s e-mail, etc. while using technology without permission would encompass licensing issues or software piracy. Given the economic status that we face right now, I feel that there is a potential for an increase in the latter of the two categories.

The Importance of Ethics

The best way I can stress the importance of ethics is through an example; let’s say the president of the company doesn’t approve the new IT budget. Within that budget are line items such as Exchange Server CALs, Microsoft Office licenses, and Citrix and MS Terminal Services CALs for new employees; as we know those can start adding up; however, there are a handful of new employees starting. What do you do as an IT Director or Administrator? This is where the importance of ethics comes into play. Sure you could set the user up and say to yourself, “Next quarter we’ll square up the licensing.” Conversely, you are the one that can be held responsible for your actions.

In this situation, the ethical decision would be to postpone creating the users and follow that up with an explanation to senior management stating that this is an illegal act by the company; furthermore, you would be the one committing the crime. This can become an uncomfortable situation; nevertheless, it is your job to educate and abide by the law. In addition, being in an IT position, you can set the tone and atmosphere (in regards to technology) with your actions, if employees catch wind of the IT Guy installing unlicensed copies of Office it can cascade into even greater ethical dilemmas.

The Consequences

There are many different outcomes when it comes to illegal licensing and software piracy. As stated on Software and Information Industry Association website, consequences for those that participate in these unethical actions:

  • Increase the chances that the software will not function correctly or will fail completely
  • Forfeit access to customer support, upgrades, technical documentation, training, and bug fixes
  • Have no warranty to protect themselves.
  • Increase their risk of exposure to a debilitating virus that can destroy valuable data.
  • May find that the software is actually an outdated version, a beta (test) version, or a nonfunctioning copy.
  • Are subject to significant fines for copyright infringement.
  • Risk potential negative publicity and public and private embarrassment.

Moreover, it is becoming easier for people to report software piracy and illegal licensing issues. This is goes to show that the IT Department better stick to ethical decisions, as a disgruntled employee has the option to turn the company in; sometimes they may even get a reward.

Resources for Reporting Software Piracy or Illegal Licensing:


To wrap things up; ethics are a crucial part of technology. Don’t let anyone force you into installing illegal software or creating users without CALs and so on; and if they try, make it your responsibility to point out the legality of these issues and the consequences that come with the territory. Make the right ethical decision.


5 Responses

  1. See

    … the numbers of philosophy graduates double majoring in computer science and information systems are climbing.

  2. […] some of you may know, I am a guest writer for WNY Tech Blog. I recently wrote a post about Computer Ethics that I feel everyone should read. Computer Ethics is an important […]

  3. the problem w/ some is that they forget already about “ethics” when the “green paper” already talks. but of course only few really observe this well.

  4. The British Computer Society is the body for IT professionals in the UK. Is there an equivalent USA?

    There is a code of conduct

    and a general discussion area for ethics

  5. The acm (Association for Computing Machinery) is possibly an equivalent to the British Computer Society. Acm is not, however, limited to the US.

    See Search for ethics from the main page to find the acm code of ethics.

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