We are obsessed with doing the right thing. From buying Fairtrade or organic food and shunning plastic bags at supermarkets to turning down our thermostats, we appear to be gripped by new found ethical awareness.

Yet, despite that ethical business is hot news, we still associate being ethical with who we are and not what we do commercially.

Popular TV programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon's Den show that the 'dog-eat-dog' image of business resonates hugely with people - we tune in every week for a display of figurative blood-letting and backstabbing that would put a Roman gladiator to shame.

Being a professional does actually imply being ethical, however. The most commonly-held examples of professionals - doctors and lawyers - are bound by a charter to act ethically.

They work in our best interests, and in return, gain our valuable trust. You would no more dream of passing your GP or family solicitor a brown envelope to get your operation up the waiting list or to alter your granny's will than you would stealing your parents' savings and blowing it on the horses.

Professionals, by definition, are experts in their domain and consequently are in a position of power, and therefore trust, relative to non-experts - their customers and end users.

Therefore, when complex IT systems underpin almost every sphere of life and operate according to rules that are invisible to the user, it is vital that those IT professionals who develop and operate the systems are aware of the ethical implications of their work.

A number of accredited computer science departments recognise the important role future IT professionals will play in society, and have already made the inclusion of ethical, legal and professional issues in computing a requirement of their undergraduate degree courses.

The BCS has long recognised the relevance of ethics to IT professionals. For more than 15 years, around a third of its existence, it has set out the ethical standards it expects of its members in a code of conduct, and code of practice. Looking at the code, it is telling that the first obligation of BCS member is to the public. Duty to the profession comes in third, after duty to a relevant authority.

This order of allegiance is clear: when the pressure's on and deadlines are looming, your first duty is to consider whether a particular piece of software or programming you are not sure about, actually benefits society. While it is unreasonable to expect every BCS member to have the code of ethics pinned up next to their computer, we all know when we are being asked to do something that's not right.

All IT systems are developed with a set of values in mind - efficiency, reducing staff costs, encouraging communication, trust, energy reduction, or equal opportunities (e.g. accessible websites), to name but a few. For some, such as the intelligence services, secrecy is a core value. For commercial companies, it's making money. 

For an organisation, corporate or public, to state an ethical commitment is now considered a valuable asset in encouraging trust. The way those organisations' systems are designed and run, should therefore also support those values.

But who decides those values, prioritises and implements them?

These are the kinds of questions that the recently formed BCS Ethics Forum aims to tackle. It also aims to promote awareness of the ethical dimension of IT as well as acting as a source of professionally recognised expertise and to stimulate active participation from practitioners in the BCS. You’ve already signed up to the code, make sure it remains alive.

Contribute to the BCS Ethics Forum

Adam Thilthorpe is manager of the BCS's Professionalism in IT initiative, Penny Duquenoy is manager of the BCS Ethics Forum.