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Software Engineering Ethics in a Digital World

Software Engineering Ethics in a Digital World

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Published by: brett81 on Jul 02, 2009
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GUEST EDITORS’ INTRODUCTION
On the one hand, the digital world phenomenon im-proves accessibility o services and communal interaction,but on the other, it also raises several ethical issues relatingto privacy, monitoring, data protection, and so on. Signi-cantly, the eatures that make services or interactions ina digital world more attractive also have the potential tocause harm. The benets o a digital world are obvious,but it also acilitates organized criminal activities such aspedophilia and terrorism, or example.
The Dual-use Dilemma
This problem o the same technology (or science) havingthe capacity or both good and ill has been called the dual-use dilemma.Many, perhaps all, technologies can be used or bothbenet and harm. The issue is not, in most cases, a call ora moratorium on the development o the technology butrather an attempt to nd ways o maintaining the benetswhile avoiding or minimizing the harm. It is worth notingthat, at least in the US, the term “dual use” is used in twosenses. In one use, it is not a dilemma. Any products, sot-ware, or technology that can be used or both civil andmilitary purposes are considered to be dual-use items. In
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
0018-9162/09/$25.00 © 2009 IEEE
 
T
he Internet has become pervasive in our day-to-day lives through the wide availability o broadband as well as its ubiquity due to theprolieration o mobile devices. This ubiquitousaccess to the Internet coupled with innovationssuch as social networking and Web 2.0 has given rise to thedigital world phenomenon. Social networking sites suchas Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter; virtual worlds suchas SecondLie; and massively multiplayer online gamessuch as the
World o Warcrat 
have blurred the boundarybetween the online world and the physical world.We live in an always-connected world, with an increas-ingly larger number o services accessible online. Weconduct business, watch our avorite television programs,engage in interaction with riends and amily, and makenew social contacts online.
Awais Rashid,
Lancaster University, UK 
John Weckert,
Charles Sturt University, Australia 
Richard Lucas,
Australian National University 
In ethics-aware software engineering, ethi-cal considerations are explicitly taken intoaccount across the software developmentlife cycle and are an integral part of riskassessment and acceptance criteria.
SOFTWAREENGINEERINGETHICS INA DIGITALWORLD
 
35
 JuNe 2009
ing illegal sexual content, 57 percent were solely devotedto such distribution, while hal o the material shared byanother 17 percent involved such content.
Fcb 
The third, and perhaps most surprising, example isFacebook. This social networking website is undoubtedlya boon to many, assisting them in making new riends andkeeping in touch with old ones, among other things. Ac-cording to a recent report, however, “68 per cent o studentswho used Facebook had a signicantly lower grade-pointaverage than those who did not use the site” (www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,24897,2532576212332,00.html). Perhaps those who are more likely toreceive low grades are also more likely to spend time onFacebook, but it is also possible that Facebook providesa distraction that aects students’ grades. While the de-velopers o Google Maps could have reasonably expectedprivacy issues to be raised, it is unlikely that those whodeveloped Facebook could have anticipated the negativeeect it has on some students.The dual-use dilemma is worth taking seriously whenengineering sotware or the digital world not because wewant to argue that technologies should not be developedi they can be used in harmul ways—probably ew tech-nologies would be permissible in that case—but because itocuses attention on the importance o considering harm-ul uses and ways o mitigating the harm. Further, it drawsattention to questions o the responsibilities or account-ability o those who develop the technologies.In the only comprehensive study reported to date, Millerand Selgelid
1
state that the dual-use dilemma “is an ethicaldilemma since it is about promoting good in the context o the potential or also causing harm.” Further, they arguethat the dilemma arises because researchers usually onlyintend their research to be used or good and it is the ac-tions o others that oten cause harm.The same can probably be said o sotware engineers de-veloping sotware systems or the digital world. They intendtheir products to be used or good, but others sometimes usethem or ill. Considering sotware development in the contexto the dual-use dilemma highlights this and raises the ques-tion o the sotware engineers’ responsibilities in this area.this sense, the term is used merely to show that one tech-nology can have two distinct uses.In the second sense, however, dual use does represent adilemma. According to Seumas Miller and Michael Selgelid,the dual-use dilemma arises in the context o research inthe biological and other sciences as a consequence o theact that the same piece o scientic research sometimeshas the potential to be used or harm as well as or good.
1
 Three cases help to illustrate the dual-use dilemma inthe context o the digital world phenomenon.
Gg m
Google has developed the technology (or used existingtechnology) to put 3D images o city streets on the Inter-net. On the benets side, “Google promotes Street Viewas a useul tool or house hunting, planning holidays orworking out where to meet riends. … combined with theGoogle Maps service, it was a ‘reasonable proxy’ or goingthere yoursel” (http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article6058197.ece). However, twotypes o concerns have been expressed. First, some claimthat Street View is an invasion o privacy. Second, otherscontend that it aids terrorists, thieves, and robbers in nd-ing their targets.
Ct  d t t
Chat rooms, such as IRC and MSN, are prevalent on theInternet, as are peer-to-peer (P2P) networks such as Gnutella,BitTorrent, and EDonkey. Chat rooms allow geographicallydistant riends to interact with each other. However, pedo-philes and terrorists also use them to plan their activities.In act, chat rooms enable transormation o previouslydisorganized criminal activity into organized activity byproviding a medium or criminals to interact around theworld. Even more critically, most chat rooms allow usersto assume any identity, hence acilitating criminals in theirillegal activities. In many cases, pedophile rings use multipleonline personas and share them so that various culprits cangroom potential victims at dierent times.Similarly, although P2P networks acilitate media shar-ing—or instance, the Norwegian broadcaster NRK oerspopular shows via BitTorrent—they are also notorious orillegal sharing o copyrighted material or illegal porno-graphic material. A 2006 study discovered that 1.6 percento searches and 2.4 percent o responses on the GnutellaP2P network relate to illegal sexual content.
2
Given thescale o the Gnutella network and its user base, and theact that the study only covered a portion o the network,this implies that on the Gnutella network alone hundredsor thousands o searches or illegal sexual content occurevery second. The study also revealed a trend toward coredistributors o illegal sexual media: O those users shar-
The dual-use dilemma arises as aconsequence of the fact that the samepiece of scientific research sometimeshas the potential to be used for harmas well as for good.
 
GUEST EDITORS’ INTRODUCTION
computer 
36
new services that should be designed to be attractive to theconsumer. However, there are concerns that the eatures o online gambling sites, or instance, that make the gamingexperience enjoyable are also the ones likely to cause harmto those at risk o gambling addiction. Similarly, there areconcerns that online role-playing games or shoot ’em upsimulations encourage violent behavior—a concern thathas been raised or a long time. Sotware designs or suchsystems must account or both an individual’s reedom tomake choices and the notion o common good.
Ctxtddt dt  tc
Ethical considerations are oten subject to, and perhapsdriven by, geographical, cultural, ethnic, religious, andeven historical standpoints. Taking images o nude chil-dren as an example, there are cases that would obviouslybe classied as child abuse or exploitative while otherswould be considered innocuous—or instance, amily pho-tographs o children playing in the bath. However, thereare cases where the boundary is not clear. For example,Tearney Gearon’s photographs o her children nude on thebeach wearing masks during a amily holiday led to anintense debate about whether these were pornographic.The cases where the ethical distinctions are clear areeasy to tackle, but where the boundaries are uzzy, subjectto the interpretation o specic communities, sotwareengineers ace a nontrivial challenge. How can these otenconficting interpretations be eectively managed in thedesign o relevant sotware systems?These challenges cannot be met by sotware engineersalone. Close collaboration is required with ethicists, law-makers, and social scientists. Good engineering practicescan solve some problems, but more diverse expertise isrequired or others. Perhaps this collaboration is yet an-other challenge.
eThiCs-aware soFTware enGineerinG
It is not clear that those developing sotware systemsor the digital world in act worry too much about anyharmul consequences their products might have, but it isour contention that true proessionals must be concernedabout these issues. As such, we advocate the notion o ethics-aware sotware engineering, where ethical con-siderations are explicitly taken into account across thesotware development lie cycle and are an integral parto risk assessment and acceptance criteria.Consider again Google Street View. At one level, the ben-ets o Street View seem rather trivial. We can alreadygo house hunting, plan holidays, and work out where tomeet riends without too much trouble. Despite Google’sclaim that it “believed it was acting within the law and thatthe benets o the service outweighed concerns about itsintrusiveness. The reason we are doing it is because wethink it has a lot o benets,” these benets hardly out-
eThiCal ChallenGesFor soFTware enGineers
The cases we have highlighted and the legislation de-scribed in the “Examples o Ethically Challenging Contexts”sidebar pose three key challenges or sotware engineersdesigning systems or the digital world.
rgt t vcy v t dt tct vb  g
There are increasing concerns over the use o the Inter-net to organize criminal activities such as the grooming o children by pedophiles, terrorists recruiting impression-able youths, and online credit card raud, to name a ew.This requires sotware-based solutions to aid police andother law enorcement agencies. The UK government’sCommunications Data Bill is one such eort. However,such “blanket monitoring” is seen by many as an invasiono the individual’s right to privacy. Sotware engineers de-veloping such systems must balance the need to saeguardthe privacy o the individual against the need to protectvulnerable user groups—or example, protecting childrenrom predatory advances.
Fd  cc v tct  
The ubiquitous access to the Internet has also providedopportunities or businesses and the general public to oer
t
he UK government’s Communication Data Bill will requireISPs to log all e-mails and website accesses or all users or upto one year. The key motivation behind this is to improve publicsaety in a changing communication environment by aiding lawenorcement agencies in tackling online criminal activity. Privacycampaigners, on the other hand, have raised serious concernsabout privacy and personal reedoms.A law recently passed in France will allow a special agencyto cut o the Internet connection o users who download ille-gal content via P2P networks based on a three-strikes rule.Oending users will receive an e-mail ater the rst strike, get aletter upon the second oense, and have their connection cuto on the third. While the law saeguards digital copyrights, italso aects legitimate users o P2P content, or instance, thecontent provided by Norwegian broadcaster NRK, which usesBitTorrent to share material.The High Court o Australia ruled that a deamation casecould be heard in the State o Victoria even though the oend-ing material was on a server in the US. A prominent Australianbusinessman, Joseph Gutnik, argued that the case should beheard in Victoria on the grounds that that is where the materialwas read and his reputation harmed. The company, nancialpublisher Dow Jones, argued that because the material was ona server in the US, that is where the trial should be held. Thedigital world not only spans the online-physical world dividebut also crosses geographical and jurisdictional boundaries.
examples of ethicallchalleNgiNg coNtexts

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