Mixed bag of Ethical mini-cases

© Copyright 1996 by John Halleck

For many years I put out a few "practical" ethics problems for Dr. Barger's ethics classes. They were rarely "earth shaking" examples, but were taken from real life.


I feel that ethics questions dealing with computers are much more common than people tend to think. Ethics questions abound in the field. Some day to day examples are:

1) A user comes by with a question about running their program on your machine. You notice that the methods that the program employs are numericly unstable (I.E. The answers have lots of digits, but only the first is significant [correct]). They claim that their thesis depends on the first three digits of the answer. They finally find a way of getting your machine to give the "same" answer, although they admit that they know the answer is bogus.

2) During the normal routine of tracking down software problems you are forced to check the contents of some users' files.

3) You are hired part time to write a program. You later find out that this is the quarter project in a class that the person who hired you is enrolled in. Now what?

4) You are writing an accounting program. The person that wants it asks you to add some features to hide some accounts from the IRS. What do you do?

5) You find a potentially serious problem in some monitoring software that you wrote. Your boss says to ignore it, if there is a problem the customer will complain soon enough if it affects them.

6) You know that the software that you wrote matches the requirements that your company was given. But, the requirements are so bad that you know in advance that the software will not match the actual needs.

7) Due to hardware problems, the mail to your site has to be remailed. (This involves checking each letter in the dead letter queue, checking to see to whom it should have been sent, and running a program to put it into the user's mailbox.) While doing this you end up seeing the contents of several messages. What should you do (if anything) in the following cases?

8) You are asked to write a program to print tags for a sale. Your boss asks you to put out tags that have a price enough too high that a 10% discount marked on it brings it back to the original price. Do you do this?

9) You've just discovered that there is a bug in code you wrote. It is a stupid error (we all make them) that will cost a lot of time to fix. There is a good chance that the code with the bug will not ever be run by an average user. Do you:

10) Finals week at a local University.

A professor who had a final to give on Tuesday, received an electronic mail message Monday afternoon. The From: address on the message is a student in his class, stating that if the final was too hard the student was going to "end it all". The student had been depressed all quarter, and had an electronic mail signature all quarter that implied that it might be better to end it all.

The professor (by sheer luck) happened to run into the student that evening. The professor confronted the student with a less than happy attitude. The student disclaimed any knowledge of the message whatsoever. The student denied even sending the message. Of course, the student ended up even more depressed after this.

The professor asked the local systems group about this, and they tracked the message down to another student (who happened to be a grad student employed by the professor!). This student had forged the mail message with the name of the depressed student.

This is an ugly situation in any case, with or without computers. With computers, however, it is even uglier, since the message that the professor received had *NO* clues in it that would have implied that the student did not send it. There is nothing that the student could have done to prove that he did not send it.

Since this required special knowledge on the part of the guilty party, should this be treated as more serious than the equivalent non-computer offense? Should the guilty party be charged for the 6 staff-hours used to track them down?

When confronted, the guilty party confessed. If they had not, the only thing that could be proved is that their account sent the message. In that case what if anything should be done? If they say "But I gave the password to my roommate," does that change anything?

11) Most operating systems give the privilege of reading and writing any user's files as part of the normal "system" privileges. This means that on many machines, all of the system people can gain access (without leaving any traces) to everybody's personal files and mail. Normally the system people are a surprisingly ethical bunch, but there is the possibility for abuse.

12) In order to justify the funding for electronic mail and news, you are asked to compile a list of how many users use each of the newsgroups and what machines you get mail to and from. You compile this list. Your company bigwigs notice that 350 users at your site read the "alt.demons" newsgroup. Since there is a company policy against demon worship, they are concerned.

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This page is http://www.cc.utah.edu/~nahaj/ethics/mixed.bag.html
This page is © Copyright 1996 by John Halleck
This page was last modified on April 7th, 1999