International review of criminal policy - Nos. 43 and 44/Developing a computer ethic

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F. Developing a computer ethic

227. In contrast to the science of computers, which has only existed in this century, other sciences and disciplines have had a longer time in which to develop the ethical standards and principles that inform new developments. Codes of ethics in medicine, accounting, law and engineering, for example, are well established and a continuity of principles and ethics has been maintained as these codes are transferred from instructor to student.

228. The need for a similar, specialized ethic for computer technology is clear. Computer-specific ethical issues arise from the unique characteristics of computers and the roles they play. Computers are now the repositories of modern, negotiable assets, in addition to being a new form of asset in themselves. Computers also serve as the instrument of actions, so that the degree to which computer service providers and users should be responsible for the integrity of computer-output becomes an issue. Furthermore as technology advances into areas such as artificial intelligence, threatening to replace humans in the performance of some tasks, it takes on intimidating proportions.

229. The need for professionalism on the part of service providers in the computer industry, as well as on the part of systems personnel who support and maintain computer technology, is well recognized. Ethical codes are the natural consequence of realizing the commitment inherit in the safe use of computer technology in both the public and private sector.

230. There is a parallel need for professionalism on the part of users of computer systems, in terms of their responsibility to operate legally in full respect of the right orders. Users must be made aware of the risks of operation when systems are being used or installed; they have a responsibility to pursue and identify lapses in security. This will promote ethical conduct in the user community.

231. Education can play a pivotal role in the development of ethical standards in the computer service and user communities. Exposure to computers occurs at a very early age in many countries, often at the primary school level. This presents a valuable opportunity to introduce ethical standards that can be broadened as children progress through school and enter the workforce. Universities and institutes of higher learning should include computer ethics in the curriculum since ethical issues arise and have consequences in all areas of the computer environment.

232. In 1992, recognizing that with society's increasing dependence upon computer technology standards ensuring the availability and the intended operation of systems were required, OECD adopted guidelines for the security of information systems. As increased dependence results in increased vulnerability, standards to protect the security of information systems are just as important. The principles that OECD is promoting have broader application that the security of information systems; they are equally relevant for computer technology in general. Of primary importance among these principles is a statement of ethics that recognizes the rights and legitimate interests of others in the use and development of the new technologies (see paragraph 238).

233. The promotion of positive computer ethics requires initiatives from all sectors of society at the local, national and international levels. The ultimate benefit, however, will be felt by the global community.


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