The case for a Hippocratic Oath for IS professionals revisited

Mary Prior


A paper presented at the first ETHICOMP conference made the case for a Hippocratic Oath for IS professionals (Prior 1995). This paper claimed that there had been little debate among members of the profession about potentially harmful applications of computer technology, such as the use of software to control weapons of mass destruction or the violation of human rights through the development of databases to track ‘dissidents’. It suggested that codes of conduct may have a role to play in stimulating debate and helping to encourage the growth of practitioners with a ‘well-developed conscience’, a term used by Thring (1980) in his arguments for a Hippocratic oath for engineers. However, the paper noted that unlike the more established professions such as medicine and the law, there were a number of professional bodies for computing professionals, in general their codes contained flaws (such as not providing guidelines about the priority of obligations when there is a conflict of interest), there were no sanctions for members not abiding by them and there was no obligation for those working in the IS field to even belong to any professional body. It nevertheless proposed that codes of conduct include a Hippocratic oath, ‘committing the IS professional to ensure that the work s/he engages in is for the benefit of human society and the world it inhabits’.

The purpose of this paper is to examine whether, ten years on, an argument for a Hippocratic oath for IS professionals can still be made and if so, whether any progress towards this concept has been made.

One of the questions to be addressed is the extent to which the potential for the deployment of computer technology to have negative consequences on society has changed in the past decade. Another will be whether the changes that have been made to the codes of ethics/conduct of various Computing and IS professional associations during this time have lead to major improvements (for example, BCS Code of Conduct (2001) and Code of Good Practice (2004); IMIS Code of Conduct; ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (1992); Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (1999); IEEE Code of Ethics; Australian Computer Society Code of Professional Conduct and Professional Practice).

The consideration of the role of professional bodies is complicated by the fragmentation of those working in IS/IT among many different areas and the ability of such workers to join one or more of a variety of professional associations, or none at all. Nevertheless the licensing of software engineers was introduced in Texas in 1998 and is a topic that has produced vigorous debate elsewhere in the U.S.A. and Canada (e.g. articles by Bagert, Kennedy & Vardi, Knight & Leveson, Parnas and White & Simons in Communications of the ACM 2002); it has also been the subject of papers presented to ETHICOMP conferences (e.g. Betts, Rackley & Webb, 1996 and Storey & Thompson, 1999). A survey of the ethical attitudes of members of the Institute for the Management of Information Systems found considerable support for the idea of licensing (Prior et al 2003). The prospect for these developments and the implications they may have on the issue of a ‘Hippocratic oath’ will be examined.

In addition to Thring (1980) there have been others who have argued for a Hippocratic oath for engineers. Singleton (1991) considers the IEEE code of ethics in the light of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and concludes that the code is not widely implemented in the engineering workplace. She calls for the establishment of ‘an engineering oath modelled on the Hippocratic oath’ as part of a campaign to raise the ethical standards of engineers. Student Pugwash USA (SPUSA) has a pledge that it encourages young scientists and technologists to take in which they promise not to use their scientific and technological education ‘for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment.

Researchers at IBM are working on a ‘Hippocratic Database’ (Agrawal et al 2002), based on the principle of privacy as expressed in the oath. ‘Hippocratic databases would negotiate the privacy of information exchanged by a consumer to companies’ (Hicks 2002) and the concept is being prototyped to work with the P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences) standard from the World Wide Web Consortium.

Taking all of the above factors into account, the paper will conclude by considering whether the professional bodies for computing professionals now have the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath embodied in their codes and what further steps might be required to ensure socially responsible practice by those involved in this field.


Agrawal, R, Kiernan, Srikant, J. & Xu, Y. (2002) Hippocratic Databases. In Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Very Large Databases, Hong Kong, China, August 2002.

Betts, J, Rackley, L. & Webb, J (1996) Licensing – What is Happening to the Existing Professional? Paper presented at ETHICOMP 1996, Madrid.

Communications of the ACM (2002) Special issue: licensing software engineers. Vol. 45 (no. 11).

Hicks, M. (2002) Data security oath.,25533,a=30785,00asp Accessed 01/02/2005.

Prior, M. (1995). The Case for a Hippocratic Oath for Information Systems Professionals. ETHICOMP95, De Montfort University, Leicester, March 28-30 1995.

Prior, M. Fairweather, N.B. Rogerson, S. & Freeman, J. (2003). Is IT Ethical? 2002 ETHICOMP Survey of Professional Practice. IMIS.

Singleton, M. (1991) The need for Engineering Ethics Education. Paper presented at IEEE 1991 Frontiers in Education Conference.

Storey, A. & Thompson, J.B. (1999) Will the Regulation of Software Engineering and the Texas Licensing Model Act as Catalysts for the Integration of Computer Ethics into Mainstream Computer Education? Paper presented at ETHICOMP 1999, Rome.

Thring, M. (1980) The Engineer’s Conscience. Northgate Pub. Co. Ltd.