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Computer ethics in the

April 3, 2018

There are few businesses where employees are not required to spend at least some
amount of time using the business’ computers, phones, tablets, or other devices. The
cost of buying and maintaining ICT equipment can be a huge cost to the business,
particularly in keeping proprietary information secure. But making sure the system is
safe is only one half of the equation. The other is making sure all employees use ICTs
to a high professional standard.

Inappropriate use of computers can put the company at risk ethically, legally, and

The concept of computer ethics stretches as far back as the 1940s but in modern
workplaces, there are exponentially more considerations in responsible computing than
ever before.

Personal internet use at work

It is common for many employees to check social media or do a spot of online shopping
while at work. For a long time, many companies blocked access to external websites to
prevent wasted downtime. The hours staff were collectively spending were seen as a
huge financial black hole. More recently however, it’s a trend that is changing.

A study from the University of Melbourne found people who spend time at work
‘browsing for pleasure’ have increase concentration levels and are more productive than
those who don’t. The study found 70 per cent of people who use the internet at work
browse for pleasure at some point and are more productive by up to 9 per cent.

However, there were some important caveats to the findings. Mainly – everything in
moderation. The study lead, Dr Brent Coker, said short and unobtrusive breaks are key
and allow the mind to rest. This reinvigorates concentration. Longer or more frequent
browsing may have the reverse effect.

Privacy, safety and data security

The company has a legal and moral obligation to protect sensitive corporate data. This
may be customer or staff records, contracts, and sensitive commercial-in-confidence
information. There are some key considerations to keeping this safe:
 Establish clear policies for data management from the point of recruitment,
throughout tenure, and even post-employment. This should be regularly reviewed
and refresher training provided for staff. This may include restricting off-site
access, preventing the use of portable storage devices in work computers, or
limiting use of the open internet.
 Restrict access. This may be through individual logins for employees, ‘need-to-
know’ access to certain files or computer drives, or by tracking activity on each
device on the company network. Ensure staff never have a need to share login
 Keep all software licences current and use reputable digital products. Many
businesses will use licensed programs or platforms such as web-based workforce
management, human resources and payroll software. These can hold information
on business intelligence, payroll processing, and personal employee
data collected during onboarding of new staff. Knowing the data is safe is the first
step in an ethical computing policy.
 Where computer use is tracked by the business, employees should be made
aware and clearly advised on what is and isn’t considered ethical use of the

The 10 Commandments (of computer

In 1992, as the use of personal computers began to rapidly expand, the Computer
Ethics Institute created the 10 Commandments of Computer Ethics. These came
following consultation with the Internet Advisory Board and were designed to be a set of
basic rules to guide how computers are used in personal and professional life.

1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.

2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people’s computer work.
3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people’s computer files.
4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid
(without permission).
7. Thou shalt not use other people’s computer resources without authorization or
proper compensation.
8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people’s intellectual output.
9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or
the system you are designing.
10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect
for your fellow humans.

While the Commandments don’t provide a total solution, they do offer a strong
foundation upon which your company can build policy around the use of computers in
the workplace.


Employees might expect to use workplace computer resources just like at

home, but doing so could put their jobs or their company at risk. Inappropriate
use of computers and computer systems at work could jeopardize the security
of company data, prevent the conduct of business or even cause colleagues
to issue claims of harassment. Workplace standards for the ethical use of
computers and computer systems are typically established to prevent these

Personal Internet Usage

Getting Internet access at work is not a free ticket to go surfing. Employees
using company networks to shop, perform banking transactions, or access
private emails and social media sites can put a strain on connectivity for the
entire organization. If Internet access is slowed down by employees misusing
the service for personal issues, business use could be hindered or prevented.

Email is a valuable communication tool for exchanging information in the
workplace, but improper use of email systems could cost the company in data
or business losses. Sensitive data such as trade secrets should not be
transmitted by email unless the data is encrypted and the recipient email
address is known and authorized. Even when the data is not considered
sensitive, email content should always be professional and accurate. Writing a
note using company email is like using company letterhead, although the
format is less formal – the writer is acting on behalf of the company.
Inappropriate jokes, images and videos that can be considered discriminatory
or sexually suggestive should never be accessed, viewed or shared on
workplace computers, via company emails or using the company’s computer
network. Employees who receive, intercept or accidentally view this type of
data might find it offensive and can issue harassment claims in litigation
brought against the company and against the employee originally accessing
or sharing it.

Log in information, such as user names and passwords, is created based on
the data access needs of each employee, and should never be shared – not
even with close colleagues. Since not every employee has the same data
needs, access rights vary. If an employee in human resources shares log in
information with a friend in sales, she can unwittingly allow her friend to
access employment records and other information that has been secured to
remain private.

Policies and Training

The ethical use of workplace computers and systems might exist in both
information systems security policies and ethics policies issued by human
resources or legal departments. Employee training programs are typically
developed to cover both. Training approaches might involve classes or web-
based training modules, and are provided during new employee orientation
and whenever policies are updated, or when the company recognizes a need
to remind employees of their legal and ethical obligations.

Employees & Ethics With Computers

Debra Kraft

Updated December 27, 2018

About the Author

A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-
plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a
senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior
member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include
quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.