Technological advancement, such as the one that we see in computer science, brings on a lot of new opportunities, but also new challenges and debates. This is particularly true in the area of ethics, as the advancement of computer technology is bringing new possibilities that are starting to challenge the way we think about many important things such as privacy and security. The rise of this technology is no doubt the single most important thing that humanity has achieved so far, as it has allowed us progress at a rate that has never been seen before.
Computers have empowered human beings to overcome all of the difficulties presented by nature, and expand in all directions as a species. However, all of this newfound power can also be abused in a way that is negative for human society. For example, current available computer technology, such as that of government agencies, allows for people to be potentially stripped of all their privacy. This is why it is important for the progress of computer science and technology to be closely linked with the study and approach of ethical debates, which ensure that computer science, like everything else, is ultimately bound by the laws of the country (Baase, 2013).
I believe one of the greatest ethical struggles that computer related industries are faced with most often is how private date is managed, used and accessed. The privacy and security of people over the internet, for example, is becoming increasingly important. A lot of vital information and data (either from large corporations or private individuals) is located on digital networks. Furthermore, a lot of the data is sensitive in nature, and if exploited can have a very negative impact on people.
People can have their identities stolen by hackers who get to their personal information. They can also be robbed of all their money and put into financial debt. Careers and relationships can also be destroyed by exposing private secrets that were exchanged over the internet with the original belief that everything would be private. In other words, the abuse or mismanagement of private information can basically destroy lives, and it is why it is an important topic in the overall ethical discussion.
Nowadays many important companies rely on the internet to conduct their businesses, and many of these have significant financial dealings. An ethical respect for the privacy of information, just as it would be available in any state institution, is thus a crucial part in the integrity of all those who rely on computer systems and networks. Companies such as Paypal and Ebay, or Facebook and Apple, possess very personal information about all of their users. The greatest ethical struggle that such companies face nowadays (and indeed any other company that manages personal information) is resisting the infringement of the privacy of such information from governments and hackers (both of which are capable of forcefully seizing such information, either by lawful blackmail in the case of governments, or hacking in the case of hackers).
This is where ethical debates come into play, as they are an important step towards establishing laws (under the form of safeguards) that would protect such sensitive information. For instance, in order to ensure fully ethical management of information, database systems should be automated and not allowed to be accessed by anyone except for maintenance.
Intellectual property also plays an important role in the ethical debates. It primarily refers to the ownership of ideas and other non-physical content, most of which only existed in virtual form. As technology allows virtually unlimited power over the manipulation of any content, from an ethical viewpoint there need to be restrictions on how intellectual property is handled, as it is very easy to steal and unlawfully distribute such content.
Another important ethical struggle in the area of computer science is related to the concept of freedom of speech. Advances in computer science allow us to exchange information as fast and effortlessly as ever before. However, not all “speech” and information is good for the public interest, and there are certain limits to what can and cannot be broadcast through computer networks. For instance, any kind of content or speech that could somehow harm other groups or individuals should be prohibited from an ethical point of view. Thus, things such as hate speech, or content that is sexual and harmful, are necessarily censored, even though the existing technology allows us the possibility to spread harmful content.
In a sense, practicing an ethical approach in this area means we are minimizing the harmful effects and consequences on society from the rise of unexpected technologies and possibilities. Of course, there is the other extreme in which too much censorship is applied and thus basic freedoms become restricted, which is very much unethical. This is the case with totalitarian regimes, where technology can be unethically used to censor or even fully block the free flow of information.
In the area of computer technologies, and especially in modern democracies, there is always a present debate on where the balance lies and how much should be allowed in terms of information freedom and censorship. The answers to this ethical question varies from country to country, and culture to culture. What is important is that the ethical debate is always present, and always adapting and changing along with the passage of time and the arrival of new technologies and new possibilities.
My greatest ethical struggle was when I was faced with a problem in which there was a report of information theft, but no evidence of who had done it. I had the ability to find out, but in order to do so, I would have to break an ethical norm. I was able to breach the expected computer privacy in order to see first hand where the information theft came from, but this breach in itself was not ethical. However, in this the end goal was more important than the means of achieving it, and in such a case it was necessary to break one ethical norm in order to save another.
Baase, S. (2013). A gift of fire: Social, legal, and ethical issues for computing technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.