Should BCS take a proactive role in bringing concerns of an ethical nature involving the use of IT to the public's attention?
It can be argued that since the royal charter enables BCS to act for the benefit of the public it gives it the right to engage in political activity.
So, when the practice of computing is not for the benefit of the public BCS should oppose it, which is what is at issue, for example, with the proposed introduction of ID cards.
The purpose of the Ethics Expert Panel is to provide advice and guidance on ethical issues and, where appropriate, issue position statements and guidelines, and to inform the public on these issues.
The difficulty that BCS will face in taking a political stand is in deciding what is for the benefit of the public, or what is potentially damaging to the public good.
To continue with the ID cards example, there are those who think the introduction of such cards is for the benefit of the public, certainly the Home Secretary who has proposed their introduction. But there are also those who think that ID cards would damage the public good.
In the case of ID cards, the membership of BCS is probably divided on the issue. So, because political issues, by their very nature, are contested issues, it seems that if BCS is to give political opinions there must be some mechanism by which the members can engage in their formulation.
If BCS chooses to give political opinions it can do it either reactively or proactively. BCS response to the government's consultation paper Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud was reactive in that the consultation paper was published and public and professional bodies were asked for their opinions on it.
If BCS were to act proactively it would anticipate or identify ethical issues and draw the attention of the government and public to them. It would characterise the problem and suggest solutions to it - perhaps suggesting legislation that is needed.
For example, in view of the cost in time and resources that results from internet spam, it would seem appropriate for BCS to advise the government that, as in various jurisdictions, anti-spam legislation is highly desirable.
There are organisations whose explicit goal is to defend certain views about what is for the benefit of the public, in other words to defend certain political values. For example, Friends of the Earth defends certain environmental values, and Privacy International defends privacy.
In a similar way some organisations defend social responsibility in the use of computing, such as the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR) and a similar organisation in the US, Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility.
In 1995, on behalf of CCSR, Professor Simon Rogerson (also a member of the BCS Ethics Expert Panel) responded to the Conservative government’s green paper on identity cards.
More recently he and Dr Ben Fairweather have responded to the consultation paper Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud. In their paper Rogerson and Fairweather express two types of opinion: political and professional.
It is also relevant to examine the BCS Code of Conduct (CoC) to see what grounds there may be for BCS to express political opinions.
For instance, in having regard for public health, safety and environment (clause 2) members of BCS may have to go beyond the letter of the law and look at the morality of their actions.
This clause has given rise to discussion on whether BCS members should work in industries which are seen as damaging to public health or the environment.
In fact, the CoC only 'governs your personal conduct as an individual member of BCS and not the nature of business or ethics of the relevant authority' but the second clause does have the force of making the member consider the ethics of the relevant authority.
In regard to the legitimate rights of third parties (clause 3) members must certainly consider the ethical implications of what they do. This is particularly so with regard to 'members of the public who might be affected by an IT project without their being directly aware of its existence.'
Here it may be helpful to members if BCS were to formulate guidelines relating sensitivity of information to strength of security. In conducting professional activities without discrimination against clients or colleagues (clause 5) it is clear that discrimination against all groups should be avoided and reduced - even if there is no legislation in place, such as in the case of the aged.
In the CoC it appears that there are grounds for the BCS to promote ethical behaviour beyond that embodied in the law, thus taking a pro-active political stand which follows naturally in the following way: If BCS believes a certain practice is morally desirable for members, it will also believe it is morally desirable for all IT practitioners. To maintain that a whole group should abide by what a subgroup regards as a correct principle is to take a political stand.
The next step in the political process is to maintain that the practice should be required legally.
In the case of professional practices this could be done either by making it a matter of national legislation or by requiring all IT practitioners to be licensed by the BCS and then including it in the BCS CoC and, where relevant, the Code of Good Practice.
One example of where BCS might take a proactive stand is in the matter of personal information held on computers. It is not uncommon that erroneous personal information is held on computers and this can be seriously harmful to individuals.
According to the Data Protection Act 1998, the data subject has the right to seek a court order to have the data corrected.
But seeking a court order is a daunting undertaking for most people, and often the consequences of the inaccuracy cannot be foreseen, which further diminishes the data subject's inclination to have the data corrected or destroyed.
For this reason it might be desirable for the government to create the office of a 'data protection ombudsman' - someone who can help rectify inaccuracies of intransigent data processors.
In many cases what is for the benefit of the public is quite clear. Indeed the laws of the land are, by and large, for the benefit of the public. In cases where IT professionals can see that a given computing practice will lead to violations of the law it is appropriate for the professional body to speak out.
So what the professional is saying is, 'look, if you allow this practice it will (or is likely to) lead to violations of the law'. A similar case occurs when the government says they will institute some computer system in order to realise certain goals.
So, again taking the ID cards example, the specific question remaining is whether there is an ethical issue concerning the introduction of such cards that BCS needs to address.
But the more general question concerns the extent to which BCS should engage in discussions that are more broadly political. We need to decide whether BCS wants to engage politically.
Whichever way we decide this question we will need to make another decision, or adopt guidelines, on policy. If we decide not to engage politically we need to be able to distinguish political issues from professional issues.
If we do decide to engage politically we should engage proactively as well as reactively, but we must decide how we will distinguish between the issues on which we take a stand and the issues on which we remain neutral.
These are the big questions that face BCS as a professional organisation.
In conclusion: this article makes four suggestions with regard to the giving of political opinions by BCS. The first concerns the role of the membership in the decision process:
If BCS is to give political opinions there must be some mechanism by which the members can engage in the formulation of these opinions.
The other three suggestions concern issues on which BCS may want to take a proactive political stand:
It would seem appropriate for BCS to advise the government that anti-spam legislation is highly desirable.
It may be helpful to members if BCS were to formulate guidelines relating sensitivity of information to strength of security.
It might be desirable for the government to create the office of a 'data protection ombudsman' - someone who can help rectify inaccuracies of intransigent data processors.