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Should We Pay More Attention to Software Ethics?

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Beth Stackpole
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Yes, but what about killing your career?
Beth Stackpole   3/13/2012 7:06:16 AM
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Talk about a balancing act. You raise many legitimate issues in terms of a software developer's responsibility to the end result of what his or her code ends up doing. But the reality is that in today's world, everything you do triggers some sort of data collection activity that is then put to use for something--whether to convince you buy something else or to give a manufacturer better intelligence on how their product is used.

That seems to be where the world is heading thanks to technology advances like infinite cloud processing power, social media, and big-data analytics. So how does a lone software engineer buck the tide of global innovation (that's what some would call it). Isn't that a mere recipe for losing a job?

tekochip
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In a Facebook age
tekochip   3/13/2012 8:01:23 AM
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As a consultant I've chosen not to work on projects because I thought they violated my own, personal ethics. However that is very hard to do with a day job. You can talk to senior management and lobby for your cause, but if you have a career tied up in a company it's very difficult to severe ties because they want to splash advertising on the dashboard every time you start your car. The justification is that It's annoying, rather than illegal, and only violates your own personal standards, not the standards of society which seem to be incredibly tolerant. Heck, look how popular Facebook is.


TJ McDermott
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"...ethical obligation..."
TJ McDermott   3/13/2012 11:01:25 AM
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That statement makes the issue look much more cut-and-dried than it really is.  What you consider unethical may be quite acceptable to another person.  Any technology may be used in a manner not originally anticipated, a manner much less ethical than originally planned.

I doubt Franklin, Galvani, and Volta expected their efforts to store electricity to be turned into a device like a Taser.  It's impossible to anticipate how one's efforts will be misused in the future.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: In a Facebook age
Alexander Wolfe   3/13/2012 11:28:33 AM
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I agree that in the real world, if you want to keep your job, you can't pick and choose what projects you want to work on. If you're young and either foolish (or brave) and financially unencumbered (no family to support) you can pretty much do what you want. Otherwise, ethics comes down on the side of feeding your family. I wouldn't break the law for any company and I wouldn't do anything patently unethical. But grey lines are another story; one's prime responsibility is to support one's family, which means keeping your job.

Jon Titus
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Stick by your ethics
Jon Titus   3/13/2012 12:08:39 PM
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Sure, engineers, programmers, and product designers think about their livelihood, but if they have no ethics, how do they live with themselves? We hear about people having a moral compass, but they need an ethical compass, too.  The recent column, "Two-faced Facebook takes 'social' out of social neyworks," that ran in the February 20th issue of EE Times make Facebook's employees seem without ethics.  I would not work for that company under any condition. This EE Times column also reinforces my reasoning for not using Facebook or any other "social media" site. Try to find a Facebook "Code of Ethics."  I couldn't find it either.

If people will not take a stand against unethical business practices and won't go to a boss and say "I won't do this," and won't have the fortitude to put their job on the line, who do they think will?

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Stick by your ethics
Rob Spiegel   3/13/2012 2:30:52 PM
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Not sure how much a code of ethics would matter. Google has a code of ethics, but the company crosses the line of privacy regularly. The lines on ethics are very squiggly. When you use a free service, you can expect the company providing the free service to monetize it in some manner, which often means selling data. If you're paying for a service, you should expect a clear line. Android phones provide an ethical mix. You're paying for the phone service, but your carrier and phone manufacturer are getting Android for free, so your data gets sold even though you're paying for the service.

Jon Titus
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Re: Stick by your ethics
Jon Titus   3/13/2012 3:29:35 PM
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Google has had two problems. First, lack of security that lets people rather routinely use flaws to hack email accounts. Second, providing backdoors advertisers can exploit to track signed-in Google-user activities. I don't consider the first an ethical problem, but the second surely is.  Perhaps it's reasonable for a company such as Google to gather information about users, but users should have an opportunity to opt in or out. As far as I know, Google has not done that, which I consider a violation of privacy and an ethical lapse. I bet most people think Google makes money from advertising alone and never give a thought to the company's use of tracking information. Certainly Google has not made a point to reveal use of such information to its users.

I don't pay to use several local ATMs at banks where I don't have an account, and I expect the banks to keep my transactions private, which they do. Just because someone provides a free service doesn't mean I give up the right of privacy and let them track what I do. Probably the bank's marketing people figure if I use their bank's ATM often enough I'll open an account. But they don't use my information to send me offers or sell my information to others.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Stick by your ethics
Rob Spiegel   3/13/2012 3:38:49 PM
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The free ATM may be a sate law issue. When I use an ATM here in New Mexico that is not my bank's, I have to pay a $2.50 fee.

Good points about Google and its use of tracking data. Both Google and Facebook sell tracking data. Not sure who else does. With the Android example, your data is getting tracked even though you're paying substantial rates for using the service.

I don't mind seeing the ads when I'm using a free service (just like free TV). I have mixed feelings about the tracking data. It certainly provides the potential for malicious use.

Nancy Golden
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It applies to more than just software...
Nancy Golden   3/13/2012 3:53:21 PM
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Wow, this is really a tough topic. Because when it gets right down to it – ethical behavior is not just a part of software programming, it affects everything we do. Industry is rife with practices that are self-serving and I can't say you can find a company that is 100% immune. Where do you draw the line? I have worn a lot of hats in my life and made decisions in the work place that went against the grain of the corporate policies but answered to a higher authority, on more than one occasion, but I also remember that in those instances my husband held a good job and if I lost mine due to taking a stance, we would be okay, so it wasn't as brave as it sounds. As a Christian I definitely pray and seek God's guidance when these situations occur and depend on Him to guide me through. "To do no harm" also falls into the second greatest commandment:

Matthew 22:36-39

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"

 37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'

Ironically, I may have just crossed over the line from being politically correct, but I maintained my integrity and shared the love of Christ. In the back of my mind I am wondering at the response I will receive from my fellow forum members (just as one does if they hold any ethical stance that may be perceived by others as inappropriate) – but it was worth it!

Charles Murray
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Crossing that blurry line
Charles Murray   3/13/2012 9:52:28 PM
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I agree with Alex that I wouldn't do anything that's obviously illegal or unethical. Most good companies would support an employee who stands up against something that's obviously illegal. But when it comes to unethical behavior, employers often have ways of presenting ideas in a way that blurs the line, sometimes even justifying bad behavior. That's why I think Jon is right: We need a set of standards for software that helps clarify that blurry line. It's one thing to argue the ethical nature of something with an employer; it's another to be able to point to a clear set of broadly-accepted standards of behavior.

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