February 11, 2012

Ethical Issues in Information Technology - I

Ethics is something that is universal to the human condition but this is not where we try to explain its origin or justify its ubiquity. Instead we take these as given and explore how it impacts people and businesses who are involved with information technology. Wendell Berry, farmer and philosopher, had famously said that “If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture” and for us in the age of Google, it is but a little stretch to conclude that “If you use a computer or a smart phone, you’re involved with information technology”. So the issues of ethics in information technology are as universal as ethics in general. However in this section we will first look at issues confronting information technology professionals and then look at some broader and more fundamental issues that concern the population at large.

Information Technology Professionals

In its early days, India as a nation with a burgeoning population and cheap labour was a hesitant user of what was viewed as labour-saving computers and even today the level of penetration of this technology is low when compared to the more mature economies. However the profession exploded into the mindscape of the Indian population on the back of the immense employment opportunities that surfaced prior to the Y2K scare -- when panicky American companies were on a desperate search for computer programmers to make changes to ancient computer programs that were expected to malfunction at the turn of the century and bring the computer dependent economy to a grinding halt. Whether the panic in the US was justified or not, the fallout for India was very beneficial as hundreds of companies took advantage of the opportunity to not only earn a lot of immediate money but also to lay the foundation of a vibrant profession that is anchored by mega-corporations like TCS, Infosys, Cognizant and Wipro that employs lakhs of programmers today.

While programmers are the most visible members of the IT community, the range of people who claim to be IT professionals is quite diverse. At one end we have the mathematicians who practice computer science while at the other we have people who install and repair our laptops and in between we have programmers, systems analysts, architects, network specialists, database administrators, hardware engineers and many other job descriptions. Unlike doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants and company secretaries there is no statutory body that certifies a person as anIT professional nor is there any specific educational qualification that is either necessary or sufficient for a person perform any of these roles. So the definition of an IT professional can be expanded to include anyone who delivers a product or service related to  digital devices -- including but not limited to computers, telephones, gaming consoles, industrial equipment and other components of a modern society.

Once we have identified an IT professional it is easier to identify the categories of people that the professional interacts with and the ethical issues that emerge with each kind of interaction.

EmployersSoftware Piracy, Trade Secret and Whistle blowing
ClientsFraud, Misrepresentation and Breach of Contract
Other IT professionalsResume Inflation, Conflict of Interest
IT users and society at largeCode of Ethics, Certification and Malpractice

Many of these issues are certainly not unique to IT professionals but some of them are more common in their occurrence because of the nature of products and services provided by the IT industry. For example :

  • Software Piracy : Software is a key “tool” or “equipment” that is used to deliver software services and very often an employer encourages the employee to use pirated software tools to deliver services. Such a scenario is extremely unlikely in other professions where the use of stolen tools like screwdriver, spanner, wrench or stolen machinery is highly improbable.
  • Trade Secrets : While designs of products and the machinery required to create and deliver them are always closely guarded in any organisation, the nature of the products in the IT industry is such that they are far easier to copy, retain and transmit through widely used communication channels. This leads to greater risks.
  • Resume Inflation :  Given the large number of people in the IT business, the similarity of backgrounds and qualifications among them and the fact that almost every company has large requirements of largely similar people -- for example Java Programmers or SAP consultants, the rate at which people change jobs is very high in the IT business. In fact, IT professionals are said to be more loyal to the profession than to the organisation ! In this volatile scenario of rapid recruitment to counter high employee turnover it is very difficult to verify the competence and  credentials of job applicants adequately. 
  • Conflict of Interest : The high turnover of IT professionals also results in situation where colleagues working for the same company very often find themselves in competing companies and personal relationships can and does fall foul of professional relationships. Somebody who was your boss and mentor, someone whom  you admire and respect, is now working for rival. So could be the case with a spouse or the “significant other” since relationships within the industry are very common. In this case, the nature and quantum of information that you can share is very debatable.

Most of these issues can be categorised into three major areas of concern : Intellectual Property, Privacy and Freedom of Information that we explore in greater detail in subsequent sections. However what makes the issues difficult to address is the fact that from a legal perspective, IT workers are not recognised as professionals since there is no statutory mechanism to “license” them to practice as in the case with doctors -- the Medical Council of India, lawyers -- The Bar Council of a particular court or chartered accountants -- The Institute of Chartered Accountants. As a consequence there is no statutory body that can adjudicate on the correctness of their behaviour. Nor is there any legally enforceable code of conduct -- other than the law of the land -- against which debatable behaviour can be measured which in turn means that an IT professional cannot be held legally liable for professional malpractice. However this is equally true for many other service lines like banking, insurance or even education but unfortunately that is no excuse to either duck the debate on ethics in the IT industry or, what is worse, use it as a fig-leaf to hide behavioural traits that are indeed unethical.

to be continued : part I of IV


Anonymous said...

You missed Employers fudging numbers Satyam Style. But guess that is not IT Specific issue.

Unknown said...
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