Debate suggests sanctions may be needed to deter unethical IT use

Ethical considerations are lagging behind IT advances and raise the issue of whether IT specialists should face sanctions similar...

Ethical considerations are lagging behind IT advances and raise the issue of whether IT specialists should face sanctions similar to those of doctors if they act unprofessionally, according to a BCS Thought Leadership Debate last month.

The debate involved senior people from universities, IT suppliers, industry and the public sector.

The government's proposals for identity cards have highlighted ethical issues such as which technologies are acceptable and which are not, yet the public seem happy to accept the gathering of personal data by retail chains, the debate noted.

Such data could arouse police suspicion if, for example, someone bought garden fertiliser and diesel fuel for a lawn mower. Electronic recording of such purchases could potentially set the authorities wondering whether the person was a gardener or a bomb maker.

Searching on the web for suppliers of diesel and fertiliser could lead a user to websites providing instructions on making bombs. Spyware monitoring software on the user's PC could flag this up to the police.

Such examples highlight tensions between ethical considerations and technology advances, the debate participants said.

There are also tensions elsewhere. Legislation is opening up access to information held by public bodies, but intellectual property rights, data protection and security considerations pull in the opposite direction.

Other ethical issues surround people being left behind by the digital world. BCS research found that a quarter of UK citizens do not have any access to IT; others may find the skills demanded of them at work are declining or see their jobs disappearing as IT takes over.

The BCS debate also discussed how software piracy is regarded by some as a crime without a victim, and crimes in cyberspace tend to be taken less seriously than others. In addition, in the world of IT systems a relatively small number of people can wreak havoc, compared with the number needed to upset society to a similar extent with traditional criminal methods.

All this poses huge problems for law enforcement agencies, and raises issues of IT professionalism.

The debate asked whether the BCS should have powers similar to those of the Royal College of Surgeons, which can strike off practitioners.

If IT practitioners contravene ethical requirements and the law, would the world not benefit if they were then restricted in their IT activities? If all IT professionals had to be qualified - as with doctors, lawyers and accountants - they could be stripped of their professional status if they hacked, vandalised or stole IT systems.

Education is a key issue here, the debaters noted. First- and second-year medical students have ethical considerations embedded in their education. A similar approach needs to be promoted in IT education, they said.

Read the full report on the debate

Ethical issues

  • The gathering and use of personal data by business and public bodies
  • The use of spyware on PCs
  • The perception of software piracy as a victimless crime
  • People without access to IT being excluded from society.

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