Software developers create the architectures that govern our online and increasingly our offline lives—from software-controlled cars and medical systems to digital content consumption and behavioral advertising. In fact, software helps shape, not just reflect, our societal values.a Are the creators of code aware of this power and the responsibilities that go with it? How, and to what extent, are they trained in the ethics of their discipline?
Like medical, legal, and business ethics, engineering ethics is a well-developed area of professional ethics. In 2000, the organization that accredits university programs and degrees in engineering (ABET) began to formally require the study of engineering ethics in all accredited programs.b
The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the May 2014 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/5/174361).
While I support and applaud Arvind Narayanan's and Shannon Vallor's Viewpoint "Why Software Engineering Courses Should Include Ethics Coverage" (Mar. 2014), and even if all software engineering educators would agree, the ethical challenges confronting software engineers who have already completed their formal educations would still go unaddressed. How can ethical reasoning and behavior be encouraged if only some software engineers have some kind of formal education in ethics? One solution is to embrace basic professionalization. However, a lack of professional status and ethics education does not absolve any IT employee, not only software engineers, of ethical responsibility, given IT's integral role in society, as the authors outlined in their column.
I previously wrote(1) organizations that wish to build strong ethical cultures would do well to employ IT ethics officers as part of their organizationwide ethics programs. The position should have knowledge of IT, business, and ethics and take on several important responsibilities:
Train employees. Develop IT-specific training programs for IT and non-IT employees alike;
Evaluate proposals. Evaluate IT project proposals for ethical risk, recommending mitigation measures;
Develop policies. Help develop ethics policies and integrate ethical standards into organizational procedures pertaining to IT; and
Be an ethics coach. Function as a confidential resource for IT employees facing ethical dilemmas.
This approach would help organizations and their employees bear up under government and public scrutiny and pressure to conduct business ethically vis-à-vis IT-enabled systems, from information security to personal privacy to health care. Though critics might view it as just another layer of red tape, creating an ethical culture should no longer be the concern of only a few IT professionals and organizations.
(1) Ponelis, S.R. and Britz, J.J. The elephant in the server room: Confronting the need for an ethics officer in the IT function. Journal of Information Ethics 21, 1 (Spring 2012), 27–39.
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