Ethics is defined as the principles of right and wrong that individuals, acting as free moral agents, use to make choices to guide their behaviors. Ethical issues have become more prominent because of the evolution of information systems. Ethical, social, and political issues are closely connected in an information society. When one area is disturbed it causes an effect on the other two areas. These issues raised by information systems center around five moral dimensions: information rights and obligations, property rights and obligations, accountability and control, system quality, and quality of life.
Responsibility, accountability, and liability are the basic concepts that form the foundation of an ethical analysis of information systems. In order to analyze a potential ethical situation, the following five-step process is helpful. First the facts must be clearly identified and described. Next the issue should be defined and the higher-order values involved identified. Third the stakeholders must be identified. Then the options that can be reasonable taken are identified. Last identify potential consequences of one’s options.
Once the analysis of the possible ethical situation is complete, several specific principles for conduct can be used to guide in the ethical decision. These include the Golden Rule, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Descartes’ rule of change, the Utilitarian Principle, the Risk Aversion Principle, and the ethical “no free lunch” rule.
Several privacy laws have been developed over the years to protect individuals and firms who use information systems. The Privacy Act of 1974 has been the most important because it regulates the federal government’s collection, use, and disclosure of information. Other federal privacy laws have been put in place to handle areas such as credit reporting, education, financial records, newspaper records, and electronic communications. Most U.S. federal laws apply only to the federal government. Fair Information Practices (FIP) was set forth to govern the collection and use of information about individuals and forms the basis of most U.S. and European privacy laws.
The use of the Internet has opened up a challenge to protect an individual’s privacy. As computer users access information, it is sent over many networks before reaching its final destination. Each network it passes through is capable of monitoring, capturing, and storing communications that pass through it. Due to the weak or lack of privacy protection policies, individuals are not always informed on their use of the user’s personal information. Cookies, web beacons, and spyware are types of information that can be secretly put onto one’s computer to track their browsing activity.
New technologies are now available to protect user privacy during Web use. They are used for encrypting e-mail and making surfing activities appear anonymous, for preventing computers from accepting cookies, and for detecting and eliminating spyware. One such tool is the Platform for Privacy Preferences which is used to enable automatic communication of privacy policies between a Web site and its visitors.
Another challenge faced by Internet users is the existing laws and social practices that protect private intellectual property. This is due to the ease of copying or distributing computerized information on networks. Trade secret laws protect the actual ideas in a work product. Copyright protects the creators of intellectual property from having their work copied by others for any purpose for a minimum of 70 years. Patents grant the owner an exclusive monopoly on the ideas behind an invention for 20 years. The rise of the use of the Internet and other electronic networks has made it more difficult to protect intellectual property.
Information technologies are also challenging existing liability laws and social practices for holding individuals and institutions accountable. In addition, computer errors can cause serious harm to individuals and organizations. Poor data quality is also to blame for disruptions and losses for businesses.
Although information technologies hold many benefits to the quality of life of individuals, they also hold many challenges. Negative social consequences can be extremely harmful to individuals, societies, and political institutions. Some of the negative consequences include the balancing power between centralizing and decentralizing computing and decision making; reduced response time to competition due to the more efficient global marketplace; maintaining boundaries between family, work, and leisure; dependability on information systems and vulnerability if they fail; increase in computer crime and abuse; loss of jobs; the increase of racial and social class split; and the increase of health risks, such as repetitive stress injury, computer vision syndrome, and technostress.