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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.


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.

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.

Larry M
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Re: "...ethical obligation..."
Larry M   3/14/2012 1:25:22 PM
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"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."

Not so sure about Franklin.  He was known for getting all his guests to hold hands in a circle and and then inserting a Leyden jar (charged capacitor) into the circle circuit to shock everyone at once. He also got a few tickles from the key-kite-lightining experiments. Not so sure about Galvani--he used to shock dead frogs with a bi-metallic battery.  And don't forget Edison and all those animal and human electrocutions to show that DC was supposedly safer than AC.

Good thing we engineers don't have a reputation as cruel sadists.

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.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Stick by your ethics
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   3/13/2012 11:08:11 PM
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I agree about squiggly lines of ethics; they often apply so clearly to damn others but when it hits close to home, its always quite another story.  But it can be simple – Live above reproach, and be slow to accuse others.  When someone gets cornered in an accusation of ethics violations, remember, let he who is without any violation charge the first allegation. (i.e., "cast the first stone") Sound Biblical-? It is.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Stick by your ethics
Rob Spiegel   3/14/2012 1:17:45 PM
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That's pretty good, Jim. Google has a list of 10 principles of doing business:

 

http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/company/tenthings.html

The company also has a list of privacy principles, software principles and design principles. While the ideas expressed are fine, I do think Google walks a squiggly line when it comes to privacy. 

Perhaps privacy isn't what it used to be. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg once quipped that nobody cares about privacy any longer. Interesting comment.

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!

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: It applies to more than just software...
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   3/16/2012 11:39:36 PM
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You are right to speak boldly, but also right to be cautious.  While sharing the Good News is the great  commission, [ ,,,to the ends of the Earth,,,] its necessary to do so with wisdom and gentle words.  Blogs are not the best venue for such, and can get explosive and quickly misunderstood, so it's a tricky task. However, a debate on ethics certainly invited it,,,,so, Kudos to you.

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.

gsmith120
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Software Ethics
gsmith120   3/14/2012 5:21:53 AM
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I think the problem started much higher than the programmers or implementers but what the rule makers.  Real long lasting change must start at the top.  Because unfortunately, not everyone has the guts to stick up for what they think is right.  Plus for everyone one person who gets fired or refuse there is someone else to take their place.  The truth be told not everyone has the same ethical compass.  The rules for what's right or wrong changes from person to person not to mention with each generation.  Somehow, somewhere along the way the rules changed some of the things that use to be unacceptable are now commonplace and well accepted. 

People in companies who make these types of rules and procedure may not have had bad intention but they must realize not all things meant for good turn out that way.  Some rules were put into place to protect us but didn't turn out that way.  Like showing IDs for credit card purchases.  The intent of showing ID is/was to protect the consumer and the store from unauthorized purchases.  This isn't fool proof, ever heard of fake IDs. 

Years ago, companies would pass of the first $50 or so to the consumer when someone made unauthorized purchases to your credit card, now that adding insult to injury.  My brother the president of a financial institution refused to implement such a rule because first you have been violated now you have to pay for it too????  With the use of social media and the like I don't think we as consumers can depend on having any more privacy than we have now, in fact I am willing to bet we will have less and less.  The next least and greatest way to expose everything about everyone is on the horizon.

ed_bltn
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Re: Software Ethics
ed_bltn   3/14/2012 10:11:49 AM
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"I refuse to show a photo ID when I make an in-person credit card purchase,"

 

This is just being stupid by orneriness. I wish they all asked for ID. I'd rather show a photo ID and have a clerk really look at it than the cursory glance at the signature space they usually perform.  I don't sign the cards, a protection I take in case my physical cards are stolen. However, store clerks usually don't even notice even when they make the motions of looking at the signature.

 

At the point of purchase, the store clerk has your credit card number which ties into all kinds of other data anyway. And they are seeing your face...hopefully, if the card is not stolen. For me, the privacy ship has sailed as soon as the purchase is made, and I'd rather have my facial appearance or some other biometric used for security from theft.

Jon Titus
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Re: Software Ethics
Jon Titus   3/14/2012 11:08:22 AM
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Not stupid at all.  In fact, the VISA and MasterCard merchant agreements clearly state a merchant MAY NOT ask for a photo ID.  Repeated requests for photo IDs usually come at the behest of an ignorant store manager and could cause VISA or MC to cancel their agreement. Never provide more personal information than necessary.  I'm always surprised that so many people do not know their rights to privacy and display a photo ID whenever someone asks.

I once asked a spokesperson at a charge-card company why they don't use a fingerprint scanner to authenticate credit-card purchases. He told me it would cost more to install the scanners, buy or create software, and gather fingerprint data that it would save them. Thus it cost less to have reserves for fraudulent purchases than to secure against them.

Charles Murray
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Re: Software Ethics
Charles Murray   3/14/2012 10:07:47 PM
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Jon: I have to admit that I've been one of those people who readily showed my picture ID because I thought that was the right and safe thing to do. Having read your column and the follow-up comments here, I won't do it anymore.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Software Ethics
Ann R. Thryft   3/22/2012 3:04:02 PM
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I agree, Chuck. I"m so used to doing that it's second nature. OTOH, if you are making a credit card purchase the store may require it because your credit card company requires it.


Jon Titus
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Re: Software Ethics
Jon Titus   3/22/2012 6:47:37 PM
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Ann, if you have a Staples or Macy's credit card you might have to show a photo ID.  But Mastercard and VISA have agreements with merchants that govern requests for a photo ID.

The latest info I have for VISA: "Although Visa rules do not preclude merchants from asking for cardholder ID, merchants cannot make an ID a condition of acceptance. Therefore, merchants cannot refuse to complete a purchase transaction because a cardholder refuses to provide ID. Visa believes merchants should not ask for ID as part of their regular card acceptance procedures. Laws in several states also make it illegal for merchants to write a cardholder's personal information, such as an address or phone number, on a sales receipt."

I believe Mastercard specifically prohibits merchants from asking for a photo ID.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Software Ethics
Rob Spiegel   3/22/2012 7:06:11 PM
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That's a good thing to know about showing ID, Jon. I still get asked often. Usually it's from a small shop. Not at the grocery stores of major retailers. Next time I'll balk.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Software Ethics
Ann R. Thryft   3/26/2012 3:19:36 PM
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Jon, I can't remember where I last got asked for my ID, or which card I used in that purchase. But to Rob's point, it was definitely in a small, local store.


Jon Titus
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Re: Software Ethics
Jon Titus   4/2/2012 12:18:16 PM
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Frankly, I don't really mind showing a photo ID to small, local businesses, but few ask. Mostly they want to examine a credit card and key in the last four digits on it. Small businesses can have a difficult time with fraudulent purchases, so I sympathize. Years ago I was in their shoes.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Software Ethics
Rob Spiegel   3/16/2012 4:02:58 PM
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Interesting points, Jon. The logical conclusion is that fraud is not a large enough problem to warrant security measures. It's rare that anyone asks me to present ID when I use my VISA card. Usually it's an unsophisticated mom and pop shop. I don't know who they think they're protecting? If the charge goes through, they get paid. I owned a magazine for a decade. We sold subs and ancillary products, taking credit cards over the phone and through mail. Obviously, ID was out of the question.

Jon Titus
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Re: Software Ethics
Jon Titus   3/16/2012 4:12:25 PM
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The credit card companies charge merchants 3 to 4 percent to process card payments, so I suppose some of that income goes into a reserve to pay claims of fraud.  By the way it's a good idea to call your credit card company and let them know about any trips you plan to take when you'll visit outside the USA or travel for more than a week.  That way they know your charges are legitimate when they see a restaurant or hotel bill come through from a location on your itinerary. Some banks let customers handle this sort of notification online.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Software Ethics
Rob Spiegel   3/19/2012 12:18:59 PM
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Good advice on  notifying the credit card company when you travel, Jon. A few years ago I received a call from a Discover rep who asked whether I had been in Mexico over the past three days. I said, "No." The rep told me my card had been maxed out in electronics stores in Mexico. Discover removed the charges and sent me a card with a new number.

Jon Titus
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Re: Software Ethics
Jon Titus   3/19/2012 12:30:30 PM
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I had a similar experience with auto-parts purchases in Korea.  My bank took care of it immediately.  I was not in Korea fixing cars!

ChasChas
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back to basics
ChasChas   3/14/2012 12:13:01 PM
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Any information we can glean through our senses while not breaking any laws or rules is fair game to anyone. Prudence tells us what to spread around and what not to spread around.

So again, it's not the software, it's the people. Sound familiar? It's not the gun, it's the people. It's not the car, it's the driver. etc.

We just need to work out that balance again - between benefits verses rights/privacy as in all things. What we get will not be perfect. 

Jon Titus
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Re: back to basics
Jon Titus   3/14/2012 12:26:14 PM
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Hi, ChasChas.  So then if a company gives me a tour of its plant and I see something on a new design on a lab bench it's OK to take the information I have seen and use it?  Honorable people have a set of ethics that tells them although the information is visible, it's not theirs and they cannot exploit it.

ChasChas
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Re: back to basics
ChasChas   3/14/2012 12:37:30 PM
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I think I verified that, Jon. I mentioned that prudence dictates what is spread around, but the IP still goes into the brain. I mentioned not only laws, but rules too.

Sorry if I gave the wrong impression.

William K.
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Software and data ethics?
William K.   3/17/2012 12:49:29 AM
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Jim, the GOOD NEWS is one of the things that we can give away, knowing that we still have ours. Other information is really not other peoples business, although they certainly do try to pry. I can pay cash at most grocery stores and not present any card and not much information is available then. When they ask for a phone number, rattling off the one for the local hospital is always good. But as the recent "world News" scandal shows us, a few organizations do not posess any moral standards at any level. And we all areb aware that some will do anything for money.

The only way that a law could prevent snooping would be to remove all potential profit from it, which would require fines many orders of magnitude greater than those at present. Unfortunately our government is unable to have the courage to pass such laws. So we are sort of "out of luck" for the present.

vimalkumarp
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Should We Pay More Attention to Software Ethics?
vimalkumarp   3/20/2012 3:25:14 AM
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"The process of gathering information about you and then using it for a purpose unknown to you raises ethical issues for the people who create such systems. Thus, programmers and software designers must revisit the ethics of their profession and consider them carefully" . I think this summarises it well

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