Grey Matters in Computer Ethics


The following are scenarios represent typical ethical issues that arise when we use computers.  Read the scenario.  Then study the proposed courses of action that follow the scenario.  Circle the letter of the course of action that you think is best.  If you do not like any of the proposed courses of action, design your own under the “your solution” alternative.  (Scenarios taken from Johnson, Computer Ethics, DOLCE project funded by NSF, and the UPRM NSF ethics initiative.)


1. “One night in March of 199x, a character, Bungle, entered LambdaMOO [“a multi-user dimension(MUD) object oriented program].  Bungle had designed a subprogram, Voodoo doll, which could attribute actions to other characters.  Using the voodoo doll subprogram, Bungle took control of two other characters legba and Starspinner, and proceeded to ascribe sadistic actions to them, (without being explicit here) including inappropriate sexual behavior one of the victims.  Some of the actions would be illegal if carried out in real life.  Legba and Starspinner were helpless throughout the entire incident.  The episode ended when another character, Zippy, used a subprogram to freeze Bungle’s commands.  What should be done to Bungle?  (Deborah Johnson, Computer Ethics)

a. Nothing should be done.  These kinds of incidents are inevitable in cyberspace, and no real harm has been done.  If one tries to restrict actions in cyberspace, then one is depriving people of their freedom of expression.

b. Bungle should be “toaded,” that is, his account with LambdaMOO should be removed.

c. Since there were no rules in LambdaMOO, it would be unjust to punish Bungle.  After all he has done nothing wrong because he has broken no rules.

d. The programmers (or wizard) cannot punish Bungle this time.  But they can set forth rules to prevent this from happening again.

e. The users of LambdaMOO should discuss this incident in some public and open forum.  Then collectively, they should decide whether to take measures to prevent this from happening in the future.

f. Your solution…


2. Melvin has advocated and started the use of data mining at a major credit card firm where he works.  Melvin soon discovers a correlation between customer loan defaults and 25 zip codes.  What should he do with this information? (Jose Cruz, NSF integration exercise)

a. Melvin should check to see if he can find a correlation between other zip codes and customers who faithfully pay off their loans.

b. Melvin should go no further.  In fact, he has already gone too far since, through this data mining, he has violated the right to privacy of these individuals.

c. Melvin should test these correlations further.  Then, if they seem to hold, he should go to his supervisor and recommend not giving loans to people in these zip codes

d. Your solution…


3. Earl has taught composition and literature at the college for two years and has applied for tenure.  As a part of his most recent annual evaluation, the dean of his department downloaded and printed out the entire contents of Earl’s online literature course, including a complete transcript of the bulletin board discussion from the most recent semesters of the class.  Using this as a part of Earl’s evaluation, he is denied tenure and will not be rehired.  You are overseeing the personnel policies concerning tenure at this college.  You should…(DOLCE summer 2000 workshop)

a. Make it general policy that the college owns all materials used in online courses.  Then it can include these in tenure evaluations with a free conscience.

b. Immediately revoke the decision denying Earl his tenure.  After all, the materials in his online course include discussions with students that are private and confidential.

c. Ask that the tenure on Earl be reconsidered since he had not been informed ahead of time that materials from his online class could be used in his tenure evaluation.

d. Do nothing.  It should be obvious to faculty that all information that can be collected can be used in tenure evaluations.

e. Your solution…


4. Curtis teaches an online literature course and uses essay exams to grade his students.  Although encouraged to have students come to the testing center for proctored exams, he instead gives his essay exams online, saying that he knows the writing of his students well enough to know whether or not they are cheating.  You are Curtis’s departmental chair.  How should you respond to this?  (DOLCE summer 2000 workshop)

a. Curtis is a teacher and has academic freedom.  For you to even suggest that there is something wrong with this policy is to interfere with his academic freedom.  Hence you must do nothing.

b. As the director of Curtis’s department and his immediate supervisor, you are responsible for the integrity of all the classes offered under the auspices of the department, including those of Curtis.  Hence you should inform his that he can no longer give essay exams online because it is too easy for students to cheat.

c. As the director of Curtis’s department and his immediate supervisor, you are responsible for the integrity of all the classes offered under the auspices of the department, including those of Curtis.  But you need to balance this against the academic freedom of Curtis.  You should ask him to write a short justification of his policy to put on file in case a problem later arises.

d.  Recommend to the dean or an appropriate academic official that the college should adopt a policy either for or against online essay exams.

e. Your solution…


5. You are a computer programmer working for X, a small company that is currently reengineering the inventory system of a local hardware store, ABC.  (ABC would like to use a “just in time” strategy to reduce their inventory and storage costs.)  You know of a software program developed by another company which X has a license to use.  This license does not allow you to duplicate the program, but your supervisor orders you to install it on ABC’s computer.  After all, he says, “Who’s going to know; we want to keep a valued customer.”  What should you do?  (UPRM NSF ethics initiative)

a. Install the program on ABC’s computers.  After all, your supervisor is right.  Nobody will know.  Furthermore, you have only been working for X for six months, and you don’t want to be branded a “trouble-maker.”

b. Refuse to do it.  Make it clear to your supervisor that he is putting you in a very difficult position, and you are not happy about it.

c. Go ahead and install the software on ABC’s computers.  But be sure to cover yourself by writing a memo that clearly states the illegality of this act.  State also that you are doing this only because you have been ordered to do it.  Then make sure to give copies to several people.

d. Discuss your problem with another colleague, preferably another supervisor at a higher level than your boss.  If this person sympathizes with your situation, then ask him or her to go with you, meet with your boss, and try to talk him out of this course of action.

e. Your solution.


6. Joe is working his way through college.  He receives an offer from some friends to work in a start-up company that will organize and host raves.  Because Joe has some experience with programming on the Web, they ask him to set up the Web site to advertise the raves.  Joe accepts, and soon the company has more business than it can handle.  However, the community’s reaction to these raves is negative; “ravers” often use Ecstasy and other recreational drugs.  What should Joe do?  (DOLCE summer 2000 workshop)

a. Joe should continue doing what he is doing since the company is obviously successful.  He cannot be held responsible for what people do at these raves.  All he is doing is putting his technical expertise to a profitable use.

b. Joe should continue to advertise raves but make it clear to clients that he will not work for raves where drugs are used.

c. Joe should continue advertising for raves but look for another job.

d. Joe should try to open a dialogue to those opposing raves, find out their concern, and see if he can do anything constructive to respond to their worries.

e. Your solution.


7. In the early 1980’s, Jim was working for a large bank in charge of promoting credit cards for college students.  His task was to develop the software system to support mass mailings of credit card applications to the students and then process them.  Jim is aware that his system will result in many college using these cards irresponsibly and that their parents will be held responsible for their debts.  What should he do?  (DOLCE summer 2000 workshop)

a. He should ask to be reassigned to another project; this project is completely immoral.

b. He should continue doing what he has been doing.  His job is to find ways of making money for his employer by designing software systems to their specifications.  If either his employers or the customers choose to abuse this service, that is their problem, not his.

c. He could suggest to the bank that they constitute a “focus group” of parents and college students, in other words, potential users and ask them what they think about the moral implications of this student-oriented credit card.

d. He should continue working on the project but quit if he notices that it is producing any harm.

e. Your solution…


8. Jerry is working for a defense contractor on the new ballistic missile defense system.  He personally believes that any defense system can be defeated easily with decoy warheads and that this system will destabilize current arms control agreements and possibly lead to a new arms race.  What should he do?

a. Nothing.  He is being well paid to use his expertise in this area.  What is done with the results after he has finished is neither his concern nor his responsibility.  (DOLCE summer 2000 workshop)

b. He should let his supervisors know of his concerns.  If they do not respond, then he should put the concerns in writing and send them to the Department of Defense of the United States Federal Government.

c. He should continue working on this defense system but join a pacifist group during off work hours.

d. He should continue working for the defense contractor but ask to be assigned to another project.  In stating his reasons, it is probably better if he leave out his concerns about the missile defense system because this might ruin his standing with his employers.

e. Your solution…


9. You are a supervisor.  While reviewing the emails of your employees, you discover that one of them is using the system to operate a weekly football betting pool. What should you do?  (Jose Cruz, ethics integration project)

a. Nothing.  After all it’s not doing any harm.

b. Fire the employee. He or she is robbing the company of time and money.

c. Make it clear to the employee that this is not acceptable.  Outline a series of punitive measures that you will take should this activity continue.

d. Place a bet on your favorite team.  Who knows, you might win something.

e. Your solution…


10. You are the supervisor of a medium size business.  You suspect that the employees under your management are goofing off, but you have no proof.  Software exists that can monitor employees and measure their productivity.  What should you do?  (Jose Cruz, ethics integration project)

a. Purchase the software and comprehensively monitor every action of your employees.

b. Send a memo to your employees threatening to monitor their activities if they don’t get more productive.

c. Purchase the software but only monitor employees whom you suspect goofing off.

d. Implement other measures, short of computer monitoring, to measure the productivity of your employees.

e. Your solution…