The global technological advancements in the past few decades have been exponentially huge. From the inception of the abacus, the first real attempts computing technology, to the current artificial intelligence age, computing systems have undergone massive changes. The notion that artificial intelligence could one day surpass human intelligence only serves to reinforce the earlier position that the technological gains so far are marvelous. Although these gains have tremendously aided in simplifying tasks, networking individuals and spearheading the efforts towards making the universe a global village numerous ethical implications have followed up. Ethics in this case are the principles that define the standards of moral conduct in society. When these ethics are viewed from the technology point of view they are term as cyber or computer ethics. This paper partakes to highlight cyber ethics by shedding light on some other key terminologies associated, describing its evolutionary phases from its humble beginnings to the present complex systems. The paper also briefly looks at the unique features of cyber ethics and the different perspectives in which it is studied.
A large number of scholars and authors have employed the phrase “computer ethics” to refer to the discipline that deals with moral issues associated with computing and information technology. With increasing concerns on the ethical issues surrounding the use of the internet, other scholars have resorted to using the phrase “Internet ethics.” Ethical issues implied in this article, however, not only focus the internet and computers but also on private computer networks and associated communication technologies (Tavani). In this regard the phrase “cyber ethics” is adopted in this article as it is deemed more accurate compared to the aforementioned two for two reasons;First, the phrase “computer ethics” implies ethical considerations of computers and could only focus on stand-alone computers on non-networked systems. However, computing and communication technologies have merged in recent years and thus computer systems can no longer be viewed only as machines.Secondly, the phrase “computer ethics” may also be used to exclusively point to ethical concerns of computer professionals which might not be the case.
Cyber ethics therefore may be defined as the study of the nature and impact of computer technology on social morals and ethics and the corresponding design and rationalization of policies for the ethical use of such technology (Moor). To have a good grasp of what is implied by cyber ethics, it is important to have a look at what is referred to as cyber technology.
Cyber technology is an encompassing term that is used to denote a wide range of communication peripherals ranging from stand-alone computers to networked computing and communication systems. Some of the technologies implied include, but not limited to hand-held devices, personal computers and mainframe computers. These devices can be inter-linked through direct connection to the internet or through Local Area Networks (LANs) and Wide area networks (WANs). LAN refers to a private networked owned by an individual or organization that covers a limited geographic area like an office building or school. A WAN on the other hand refers to an interconnection of LANs spanning a broader geographic coverage (Tavani).
The evolution of cyber ethics
The inception of cyberethics can be traced back to the late 1940s when it was suggested by a group of analysts suggested that there be no need to ever build more than six computers (Tavani). Although the field is still relatively young, it has caught the attention of book and journal writers. This evolution can be effectively summed up in four phases.
Phase I (1950s through 1960s)
The technological devices of this era mainly consisted of huge stand-alone mainframe computers that were not networked. During this phase one of the major ethical concerns focused on the impact of computers as giant brains. Most of the questions during this era can be associated to today’s artificial intelligence. Some of the questions raised include; do machines have thinking capacities? Should thinking machines be invented? If machines could possess intelligence, what are the implications on humans?
The second set of ethical and social concerns arising in this period dealt with privacy issues. For instance, it was feared that with increasing popularity of computing technology, the federal government would collect and store large figures of personalized citizen information of its citizens in a centralized database. This data would then be used in monitoring and controlling the actions of individual citizens. It was during this phase that pioneer works towards computer networks were formalized by works on ARPANET which is considered the mother of the internet.
Phase II (1970s through 1980s)
During this period, the convergence of computers and computing devices lead to the development of computer networks. Stand-alone computers could then be networked through one or more private networks such as Local Area Networks (LANs) and Wide Area Networks (WANs). This simplified the sharing and exchange of information between computers. The arising ethical issues of the period centered on personal privacy, intellectual property and computer crime. The ease of exchanging electronic records of personal and confidential information between networked databases raised fears on privacy issues. A second ethical concern was on intellectual property due to the ability of personal computers being used to duplicate proprietary software programs. Computer crime was also an issue as individuals were now able to access organizational computer systems through personal computing devices and disrupt them.
Phase III (1990 to present)
This is often termed as the internet era following the exponential growth of the internet and increased access by the general public. This was spearheaded by the remarkable growth of the World Wide Web and this has contributed to further ethical issues pertaining computing technology. The hot ethical concerns of this era pertain; issues of free speech, anonymity, jurisdiction and trust.
This is the present era of cyberethics that is associated with an unprecedented level of convergence of technologies. In this era, computers are becoming more and more a part of human beings. For instance, the convergence of cyber technology with biotechnology and the developments in genome research could raise many ethical concerns. The advent of electronic agents with artificial intelligence capable of making decisions and the recent introduction of biochip implant technology points to an era where computers will soon be part of humans and the social and ethical implications of such developments could be massive.
The special nature of cyber ethics
It is indisputable to claim that the embracement of cyber technology has impacted profoundly on societal moral, legal and socials systems. It is also argued that cyber technology has brought up new and unique moral hitches
James Moor points out that the fact that computers are logically malleable makes them revolutionary and are thus accompanied by unique ethical issues. Logic malleability implies that cyber technology can be shaped and molded to do any activity that can be characterized in terms of inputs, outputs, and connecting logical operations. Non-computer technologies are typically programmed to undertake specific functions or tasks and as such lack the universal properties that of performing a variety of tasks that follow computing technologies. For instance if we consider microwaves and videocassettes, both are technological tools that performing specific function; cooking or warming food and viewing videotapes respectively. They cannot be used interchangeably unlike computers which can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks such as word processing as well as sending and receiving emails over the internet.
Due its logical malleability, cyber technology has the potential of breeding new possibilities for human action which could be without limits(Moor). These new possibilities according to Moor can create what he terms as “policy vacuums,” to refer to the lack of explicit polies or laws that govern the new actions generated by cyber technology. Due to the potential creation of policy vacuums, it is important to give cyber ethics special consideration since as results from cyber technology which is significantly different from other technologies. Following this argument which resonates with Moor’s point of view, an independent field of applied ethics that tackles ethical considerations of cyber technology is needed.
Unintentional power in design
A second factor that contributes to the unique nature of cyber ethics is the unintentional power vested in the design of cyber technology. In the design of software by software engineers, intentional and unintentional decisions are made (Huff). Intentional decisions are aimed at making the product work faster, easy to maintain and possess increased capability. Some decisions are, however, unintentional such as the product being difficult to maintain and harming the users. The problem of unintentional power is that the designers are usually far removed from effects that would result from the use of the technology. The unintentional power in the design of cyber technology makes it difficult to institute policies regarding the use of the technology and once again a policy vacuum occurs. The use of software for purposes other than the intended could bring about ethical concerns that are unprecedented and as such making cyber ethics a unique field of applied ethics.
Cyber ethics as a branch of applied ethics
Cyber ethics can be viewed as a branch applied ethics that examines practical ethical issues rather than theoretical ethics. Scholars and researchers in the field of cyber ethics have focused on one of three distinct perspectives, professional ethics, philosophical ethics and descriptive ethics
Cyber ethics as a field of professional ethics
According to the proponents of this school of thought, the field involves analyzing issues of ethical responsibility for computer professionals. Issues considered from this perspective range from professional’s part in design, developing and maintenance of computer hardware and software systems. Proponents of this perspective allude to other professional fields like law and medicine. They argue that just the principles of analysis, medical and legal ethics should as well be applied to cyber ethics (Gotterbam). Therefore this perspective is of the view that cyber ethics should exclusively focus on the moral responsibility that touch computer professionals and not on the wider moral and social impacts of that technology.
Cyber ethics as a field of philosophical ethics
The philosophical aspect of cyber ethics focuses on social polies and personal character that affect almost everyone in society. These include ethical and moral issues to do with privacy, security, property and free speech, these are issues with potential to affect anyone including people who have no access to computers.
Methodology used by philosophic ethics
The method that is employed by philosophers to undertake research in applied ethics consists of three discrete stages.
- Identification of a given controversial action as being related to morals and ethics
- Description and follow up analysis of the problem. This involves clarifying concepts and inspecting the realistic statistics that accompany the issue at hand
- Application of moral theories and principles in a deliberative criteria in an attempt to attain a stand concerning the given moral predicament.
Cyber ethics as a field descriptive ethics
Descriptive ethics is a branch of study that describes features of a chosen moral system and reports the way members of different cultural organization look at the chosen moral aspect. From this point of view, cyber ethics is viewed in terms of the sociological aspects of a given moral value. This may include analyzing the social effects of a given technology on a given community. For instance, analysis of morals issues pertaining the “digital divide” will involve initially describing the issue in terms of its impact on socio-demographic groups such as social class, race and gender.
Advantages of using descriptive ethics in cyber ethics.
It is believed that initial focus on the descriptive aspects of a problem could aid one to effectively comprehend some normative features and implications. Some scholars believe that understanding the social impacts of technology from a descriptive perspective simplifies and clarifies the normative ethical questions.
Descriptive analysis of cyber technology impacts is important in informing analysts in two ways;
- Descriptive approach to a question effectively prepares the researcher for succeeding analysis of the practical ethical issues impacting a systems policies and laws.
- Descriptive approach is important to professionals in designing systems that are devoid of social and ethical struggles of previous versions.
The table below shows a summary of cyber ethics perspectives
Type of perspective
System reliability and safety
Codes of conduct
Privacy and anonymity
Impact of cyber technology on government/ financial/ educational institutions and sociodemographic groups
Table adopted from (Tavani).
Are cyber ethics neutral?
It is argued that cyber technology is not neutral as it possess certain in-built values and biases that usually are not open thus difficult to detect. Corlann Gee Bush argues this concept in line with the guns metaphor, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This metaphor is used to suggest that guns without human intervention cannot harm people. It is argued that cyber technology just like other technologies have entrenched values and biases. The mere presence of computing technology does not harm others, however it polarizes the environment and influences action by human and hence cyber technology is not inherently neutral. This argument is in agreement with Deborah Johnson’s stand that computers are moral entities but not moral agents. She argues that computer systems lack mental states and even if they were constructed to possess this aspect, they lack the intention to act that could arise from their own freedom.
Ethical issues of cyber
There are numerous ethical issues that are associated wit cyber technology, this article will however shed light on only four of these issues.
Privacy regards the type of information about oneself that an individual is required to disclose to others, the conditions for disclosure and the information that one is not supposed to disclose. There are two major forces that threaten an individual or organizational privacy. The advancements in cyber technology and increased capacity for surveillance, computation, storage and retrieval is the first. The second threat to privacy is the value attached to information in decision making. Information has become more valuable decision and policy makers and will do everything to gain access even if this acquisition would breach others privacy. Unauthorized access to personal and privileged information constitutes a breach of cyber ethics.
As an ethical concern, accuracy focuses on the responsibility for authentication of information, fidelity and accuracy of information provided. Misinformation can foul people’s lives and can adversely affect their livelihoods.
Intellectual property refers to the intangible property that are owned by individuals or corporations. There are numerous ethical concerns that surround the issue of intellectual property. Software piracy and duplication violates intellectual property rights and is a matter of ethical concern as could result to economic losses to the owner of the information or property.
The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed increased cases of unauthorized computer intrusions which brought about numerous debates concerning their ethical implications. Some people argue that computer break-ins play a significant role as long as they cause no damage (Spafford). Another section argues that whether or not significant damage is caused, computer hacker-break-ins are harmful and unethical. Hacker break-ins have previously served to unearth some ills propagated by governments and organizations.
Strategy for approaching cyber ethics
This is a methodological scheme that is aimed at aiding individuals to identify and analyze cyber ethics issues.
Step 1. Identification of a component of cyber technology that seems controversial from an ethical point of view
1a. disclosure of any invisible aspects that possess moral implications
1b. assess the sociological impacts of the issue to relevant institutions and socio-demographic groups if the issue satisfies a descriptive ethics perspective.
1c. terminate analysis if the issue has no ethical effects
1d. assess the issue to determine is it satisfies a professional ethics perspective. If it does, analyze it in line with the existing codes of conduct/ ethics to ascertain any professional associations.
1e. if there are still other ethical concerns, move to step 2.
Step 2. Assess the issue by expounding the concepts and placing it contextually
2a. if a policy vacuum is in existence, move to step 2b, else move to step 3.
2b. resolve any existing conceptual hurdles associated with the policy vacuum and move to step 3
Step 3. Closely analyze the issue at hand. This process of analysis calls for two stages:
3a. analyze the ethical issue in line with one or more ethical theories
3b. justify the position taken by assessing it in line with the rules of logic
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