BCS Thought Leadership Debate held on 13 September at The Royal Society in Edinburgh.


We all know that the media love scare stories: loss of privacy; digital discrimination; corporate misbehaviour; the loss of anonymity. In short, 'Big Brother' is watching you.

But the media also drew attention to the fact that some of the terrorists involved in the 9 / 11 attacks were known faces, and if there had been biometric face recognition software in use at airports the situation could have been diluted or even prevented.

This schizophrenic approach to the issues only highlights why ethical considerations in computing are so important.

And it's not just national issues - we are involved personally.

Imagine that you want to buy diesel fuel for a lawn mower and a popular variety of garden fertiliser, visiting two shops to do this. When you get home you're surrounded by big men in uniforms and flashing blue lights.

Why? Because both products had embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags - and the confluence of products you bought alerted the law enforcement agency. Maybe you're a keen gardener; maybe you're a bomb-maker.

Out of curiosity you search the net for the words 'diesel' and 'fertiliser', bringing up websites with full instructions on bomb-making. But spyware could track this request, leading to more blue lights.

These hypothetical examples demonstrate the tension between ethical considerations and technology.

But how do we define ethics? If we take three broad areas: the nature of morality, which is outside the scope of a Thought Leadership debate; the rules of good conduct, which various professionals bodies already define for their adherents; and applied ethics, which can usefully ask whether new technologies are acceptable or not, then clearly the third point is the one that can be fruitfully debated.

Discussion of whether technologies are acceptable or not is particularly important during a time of change, and there are antecedents for this.

In the early 80s, for example, the issue of test tube babies provided a turning point in the discussion of medical ethics. Computing has not yet reached a turning point, but clearly the quality of the debate needs to be upped.

The test tube baby debate featured professional philosophers who put the arguments in a social and historical context. Computing would benefit from a similar approach, particularly as we are in a transitional phase between a print-led and an IT-led society.

Ethics from the start

One possible method of removing ethical problems is to integrate them into the research and development of products from the very beginning.

Some new technologies have very obvious ethical implications that can be considered early - for example the use of multi-user dimensional (MUD) gaming programmes. Indeed the MUD community has already faced the issue of dealing with unacceptable behaviour from users via their avatars.

A small section of society even now appears to be willing to embrace machine culture completely and become cyborgs - human/machine amalgams. This calls into question the very definition of being human - a broad philosophical debate.

It also brings up the areas of the sense of self and identity - which relates back to more prosaic debates such as those on ID cards.

As we become citizens of cyberspace, we'll need to learn how to be decent citizens - leading to the conclusion that a consideration of ethics and the social implications of computing should start in school.

A professional body can certainly help in raising awareness of the debate, especially as there seems to be little grass roots understanding of ethical issues.

For example, whilst a large number of people are untouched by IT, there is conversely no provenance for what is published on the web, so children in particular need to be taught critical thinking and ethical principles to help them differentiate between the useful and ethically good, and the damaging and ethically bad.

These ideas are complex and far-reaching - the interaction between man and machine is changing - so whilst the ethical considerations of computing may not be quickly solved, they should at least be clarified.

Ethics in government

As with all new technologies, ethical considerations lag behind technological capabilities. Even the individuals' relationship with the government is changing.

The shift in communication from paper-based to email, instant messaging and texting has led to a generational shift in perceptions - where it could be said that those who have been brought up with these new methods have a fundamentally different perception on society in general - and hence fundamentals such as ethics.

The issue of changing values in citizenship is a real one - what values need to apply to cyber-citizenship? It takes many less cyber-criminals to wreak havoc in IT systems than it does criminals in the real world to upset society.

There has been a rise in what some consider to be victimless crimes, for example, the subverting and repurposing of software, and this poses huge problems for law enforcement agencies - particularly when 'crimes' in cyber-space appear to be taken less seriously - a point made consistently by the UK’s National Hi-Tech Crime Unit.

People on the trailing edge of the digital world also represent a social issue that needs to be considered. Currently many do not even have access to the virtual world, or they may find that they are suffering de-skilling as their jobs are replaced by software tools or assistive technology. This implies that government needs to ask the people what it wants from them.

Could something as basic as society's view of privacy need re-assessing? The very concept of anonymity is a recent notion: in medieval society there was no notion of personal privacy - everyone knew everything about everyone.

Regional variation could also usefully be scrutinised. In the UK we look at things with the pre-suppositions of traditional Western thought, but ethical values vary, or change in order of importance, in other parts of the globe.

An interesting example is one already governed by law: pornography. It isn't illegal, but certain types of pornography acceptable in Europe are not in the UK.

Additionally, various principles already legislated for are in a state of tension. For example, the principles behind liberal political theories value free access to information - but intellectual property rights, privacy legislation and security considerations pull in the other direction.

On the other hand, if information was completely open to access, could that lead to a shift in the balance of power?


Because BCS as an organisation outlives governments it must take its role as an educator seriously. Should the Society have similar powers to the Royal College of Surgeons, which can strike off an incompetent surgeon?

When an IT practitioner contravenes not only ethical requirements but actual rules of law, wouldn't the world benefit from their being restricted in IT pursuits? If all IT professionals needed to be suitably qualified - as do doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on - then when one hacks, repurposes, steals or vandalises IT systems they could lose their professional status.

This leads back to the importance of gaining assistance from ethical specialists from diverse fields, well demonstrated by the implied problems in differing ethical models. For example, industry is responsible to its shareholders; academia is responsible to its scientific disciplines; and government is responsible to its ministers or the crown.

Some ethical issues, such as the treatment of the genders and those of different races, are already covered by law. But legislation needs to consider not just what is done with current technology, but what is possible with it. This is where a professional body's experience, and its pool of established experts, comes in.

Thus BCS should be a voice to government, using its inherent experience as a guide on current issues and potential future developments, although not controlling the content of the legislation itself.


Has this debate come 15 years too late? ID cards highlighted the ethics issue - yet shoppers seem happy to accept the level of information that retailers, such as Tesco gather, as long as they get something in return.

The example of Enron showed that a public lobbying process can work to effect changes in commercial environments. In that case lobbying actually effected a change in the law.

For BCS to be an effective voice on ethical issues it needs to get its own ideas straight first. Education is a paramount consideration.

In the medical arena, first and second year medical students at university have ethical considerations and processes embedded in their education. BCS could promote a similar model.

At present BCS is working on becoming better linked into the government's mindset. But the ethical issues in computing are not esoteric internal debates, but something affecting the public good and, therefore, demanding of public debate.

BCS needs to differentiate between lobbying functions and its value as an independent advisor. Whilst establishing a consistent and fundamental set of ethics is beyond the remit of the Society, it should be actively contributing to the development of an ethically aware digital society.

So in the IT arena: If not now, when? If not BCS, who?