A Discipline in its Infancy

As Computer Use Grows, So Do Moral Issues
By Terrell Ward Bynum

This article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, on Tuesday, January 12, 1982.

A famous rock star has just died and millions of fans are grieving. The computer of a major novelty distributor is immediately put into action, for there is not a moment to lose if the grief is to be fully exploited. From data banks of ticket agencies, record distributors and other firms, the computer compiles names, addresses, purchasing histories and financial backgrounds of people who bought records and attended concerts of the fallen star. Within 48 hours of the tragedy, the novelty company begins computer-dialing phone numbers of thousands of grieving fans. Whenever someone answers, the computer plays excerpts of the dead star’s most emotional records along with a sales pitch for souvenir T-shirts and posters. Instantly, orders are taken and confirmation letters are printed. Within a week, more than a million fans have been reached, and factories have been notified of the number of items to produce. Is this imagined application of computers a smart, efficient business venture? Is it unfair exploitation of people caught in a weak moment? Is the gathering of information on people and the phoning of their homes an unethical invasion of their privacy or a new and commendable business strategy? Such questions and many harder ones are being raised and debated in “computer ethics,” a new field of growing concern to business and industry as well as to all of society.

Computer Crime

One large area of problems is that of computer crime. Computers have been targets of attack – by guns, bombs, screwdrivers, magnets, even simple house keys – that have caused millions of dollars in damages. Computers have been used to embezzle fortunes; to print fraudulent coupons, tickets, deposit slips, bonds, insurance policies; to divert large quantities of merchandise; to establish phony credit ratings, job dossiers, credentials; to steal company secrets, software, even computer time itself. It is important to note, however, that the vast majority of crimes studied by computer ethics did not come into existence with computers. Embezzlement sabotage, fraud and similar misdeeds have existed for centuries, and new technology can always be misused as well as used correctly. In many cases, though, computers have tempted the would-be criminal with powers he could only dream of in the past. With the right passwords and computer know-how, for example, it is possible to rob a bank at home from your own telephone and make off with millions of dollars. No guns, no dangerous confrontations with guards, and the evidence can often be electronically erased without a trace. Even when the culprit is caught, convictions are hard to secure and penalties have usually been extremely light considering the staggering amounts of money or damage involved.

Another large area of concern in computer ethics is that of privacy. There are thousands of data banks in business, government, health care and education, containing all kinds of information on millions of Americans. How much of this information should a business be permitted to compile on its employees? – its potential customers? – its rivals in business? How much of the information stored in the computer of a single company should be readily available to low level employees, middle management and top executives? Surely, a secretary using a computer terminal should not be able to gain information on her boss’ health problems, financial status, promotion prospects. But how much information should the boss be able to compile on the secretary? Should he or she have access to IQ scores, personality profile tests, reports from the company physician and psychologist? Should the company acquire credit card or bank records on its employees and be able to determine where they shop, what doctors they are seeing, what motels they stay in, how they spend their leisure time? Should a company sell names, addresses, phone numbers, salary figures and other information on its employees to other firms to be used for a sales campaign or market analysis? Some answers to questions such as these seem obvious, but others are complicated and debatable. Much work needs to be done in considering the issues. In the mid 1960’s, a major public uproar resulted from a proposal before Congress to create a central bank of information on all Americans. The National Data Center, as it was to be called, would assign an identifying number to each American and then establish a dossier of information from the IRS, Census Bureau, National Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Education and scores of other government data banks. Many people saw this as a menacing first step toward a “Big Brother” government that would meddle in the private lives and business affairs of everyone. Even if government data banks were ignored, however, business and industry taken as a whole have sufficient data on most Americans to enable an information thief to compile very full dossiers on his victims. Imagine that an unscrupulous person gains access to the files of doctors, psychiatrists, banks, credit bureaus, personnel offices, lawyers, accountants, insurance companies and so on. The result could be powerful tools for harassment, blackmail, repression, political control, to name but a few possibilities. In a recent conversation, however, Harold Fleisher of International Business Machines Corp.’s data systems division noted that great fears about data security and limited access may be a bit premature. As computer systems have become more complicated, he said, the “interface technology” needed to make them easily useable has led to increasingly effective safeguards, making it harder and harder for unauthorized persons to get information to which they are not entitled. Indeed, according to Walter Maner of the Institute of Applied Ethics at Old Dominion University, our ability to use “secret codes” to store and transfer information is becoming so effective that we may include the question of who has the right to conceal the truth and under what circumstances. Does anyone ever have the right to bury the truth so effectively that it can never be known again?

Decision Making

A third important area of computer ethics concerns responsibility and decision-making. Sometimes a business may try to excuse a billing mistake or other problems by calling it a “computer error.” But these days it is highly unlikely that sophisticated computer hardware will malfunction without catching the mistake. So-called “computer errors” are caused, in most cases, by a person who has entered the wrong information or pushed the wrong button or written a flawed program. In a complex computer system involving many people with a variety of roles, programs, data banks, input terminals, processors and so on, it can become a major problem – both practical and theoretical – to decide who is responsible or liable for the proper functioning of the system. Such problems become even more complicated when computers begin to make decisions that previously were made by people. More and more business management decisions are being automated by computer – when to order more supplies, which ones to order, when to mail overdue notices or cut off electricity or deny someone credit, and so on. If an elderly couple freezes to death in their home because an electric company’s computer has issued a cutoff order, who is responsible?

Computer crime, privacy and responsibility are only three broad areas of computer ethics. There are many others. Deborah Johnson, of the Center for Study of the Human Dimension of Science technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is writing a book on computer ethics that also includes discussion of the ownership and copyrighting of ideas, the impact of computers on human autonomy, and a variety of additional issues. In his course “The Ethical and Social Impact of Computing” at Dartmouth, Stephen Garlan, chairman of the program in computer and information science, includes such topics as the impact of computers on organizations and work patterns, and government related issues like national security and the concentration of political power. At the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at Illinois Institute of technology, John Snappers’ course, “Moral Issues in Computer Science,” deals as well with ethical codes of computer societies. These courses and centers, and a handful of others across the nation, represent the early stages of a discipline that will grow rapidly in the next few years.