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ETHICS AND PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY IN COMPUTING
INTRODUCTION Computing professionals perform a variety of tasks: They write specifications for new computer systems, they design instruction pipelines for superscalar processors, they diagnose timing anomalies in embedded systems, they test and validate software systems, they restructure the back-end databases of inventory systems, they analyze packet traffic in local area networks, and they recommend security policies for medical information systems. Computing professionals are obligated to perform these tasks conscientiously because their decisions affect the performance and functionality of computer systems, which in turn affect the welfare of the systems’ users directly and that of other people less directly. For example, the software that controls the automatic transmission of an automobile should minimize gasoline consumption and, more important, ensure the safety of the driver, any passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians. The obligations of computing professionals are similar to the obligations of other technical professionals, such as civil engineers. Taken together, these professional obligations are called professional ethics. Ethical obligations have been studied by philosophers and have been articulated by religious leaders for many years. Within the discipline of philosophy, ethics encompasses the study of the actions that a responsible individual should choose, the values that an honorable individual should espouse, and the character that a virtuous individual should have. For example, everyone should be honest, fair, kind, civil, respectful, and trustworthy. Besides these general obligations that everyone shares, professionals have additional obligations that originate from the responsibilities of their professional work and their relationships with clients, employers, other professionals, and the public. The ethical obligations of computing professionals go beyond complying with laws or regulations; laws often lag behind advances in technology. For example, before the passage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 in the United States, government officials did not require a search warrant to collect personal information transmitted over computer communication networks. Nevertheless, even in the absence of a privacy law before 1986, computing professionals should have been aware of the obligation to protect the privacy of personal information. resemble recognized professions such as medicine, law, engineering, counseling, and accounting? In what ways do computing professions resemble occupations that are not thought of traditionally as professions, such as plumbers, fashion models, and sales clerks? Professions that exhibit certain characteristics are called strongty differentiated professions (1). These professions include physicians and lawyers, who have special rights and responsibilities. The defining characteristics of a strongly differentiated profession are specialized knowledge and skills, systematic research, professional autonomy, a robust professional association, and a welldefined social good associated with the profession. Members of a strongly differentiated profession have specialized knowledge and skills, often called a ‘‘body of knowledge,’’ gained through formal education and practical experience. Although plumbers also have special knowledge and skills, education in the trades such as plumbing emphasizes apprenticeship training rather than formal education. An educational program in a professional school teaches students the theoretical basis of a profession, which is difficult to learn without formal education. A professional school also socializes students to the values and practices of the profession. Engineering schools teach students to value efficiency and to reject shoddy work. Medical schools teach students to become physicians, and law schools teach future attorneys. Because professional work has a significant...
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