The Ethics of Computing


Two colleagues review a sensitive project on a laptop.Teaching students the ethics of computing is an important part of any computer science course. Rather than focusing on laws or regulations, computing ethics involves understanding society’s views on the ethical use of computers, including concerns about privacy, intellectual property rights and effects on society.

Educators seeking the most up-to-date practices on teaching this vital subject can earn graduate-level professional development credit through the Impacts & Ethics of Computing course from Fresno Pacific University. The course is the fourth in a series of Computer Authorization courses allowing teachers to earn computer science teaching credentials. 

What Is the Study of Computing Ethics?

In addition to developing the skills needed to get the most out of innovative software and hardware, students should also learn the computing ethics involved in their use. These essentially function as moral standards for what people should and should not do. Ethics typically fall into three main categories:

Privacy Concerns

Privacy is a big issue for anyone keeping digital records. The chief concern is the threat of hacking, which involves someone illegally breaking into a digital system and stealing information. Lowering the risk of hacking involves high levels of security and a limit on the number of people who can access the system. 

Malware that infects a computer system is also a primary issue, including viruses that delete files or spyware that captures them. Perhaps the trickiest issue in this area is data protection, which attempts to walk the line between privacy and the ability for a company to use a person’s data for business purposes.

Intellectual Property Rights

This area involves the ability to enforce copyrights, keeping people from illegally copying, distributing or otherwise making use of someone else’s work published digitally. This also involves an ethical standard against plagiarism (copying someone else’s work and passing it off as your own). In addition to published content, intellectual property rights also extend to using software only in such a way that does not violate the original license agreement.

Effects on Society

Social impact is perhaps the biggest concern of all. Computers have eliminated many jobs, including thousands of positions in the media, travel industry and retail outlets. But computers have also created jobs and made some occupations much easier. Students should learn about these effects and the physical impact of working with computers (such as sitting for too long without stretching or exercise).

Computers also have an environmental impact through increased energy use and social impact, including social media’s benefits and dangers. Students also should know the positives (stress relief, improved strategic thinking) and negatives (isolation, potential addiction) of playing computer games. 

What are the Ethics of Computing?

The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) has written general rules of ethical principles for computing professionals. They include the following:

  • Contribute to society and human well-being, acknowledging that all people are stakeholders in computing: This includes the promotion of fundamental human rights, the right to individual autonomy and minimizing the negative consequences of computing, including threats to health, safety, personal security and privacy.
  • Avoid harm: By harm, the ACM means negative consequences. Avoiding harm includes “unjustified physical or mental injury, unjustified destruction or disclosure of information, and unjustified damage to property, reputation, and the environment.”
  • Be honest and trustworthy: Trust requires computing professionals to act transparently, fully disclosing system capabilities, limitations and potential problems. They violate ethical principles if they engage in dishonest conduct such as making false or misleading claims, fabricating or falsifying data and offering or accepting bribes.
  • Be fair and take action not to discriminate: This requires valuing equality, tolerance, respect for others and justice.
  • Respect the work required to produce new ideas, inventions, creative works and computing artifacts: This requires giving the creators of specific products the credit they deserve for their accomplishments and respecting copyrights, patents and license agreements.
  • Respect privacy: This includes only using personal information for legitimate reasons and without violating the rights of individuals and groups.
  • Honor confidentiality: This includes information about trade secrets, client data, nonpublic business strategies, financial information, research data, pre-publication scholarly articles and patent applications.

Fresno Pacific University’s Ethics in Computing Course

In the Fresno Pacific University Impact & Ethics of Computing course, educators study ethics concerning innovative computing technology and its impact, biotechnologies, aerospace, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Teachers also learn about ethical frameworks, how they impact various areas of computing ethics and their application to what they do in the classroom. The 100% online course is self-paced, allowing educators to take up to a year to finish the course.

Ethics in computing is one of the most hotly debated topics in modern society. Both teachers and students benefit from understanding the details of these ethical debates and how they guide society’s thinking on the proper use of innovative technology.

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