In October 2018, a study done at the NCS University found that the code of ethics laid down by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) had no influence over the decisions made by software developers worldwide. The study involved a sample of 105 software developers and 63 software engineering graduate students. The subjects were presented with 11 scenarios involving ethical challenges that they were required to navigate. Half the participants were shown the code of ethics, whereas the other half were told, in an introductory overview, that ethics was important. It was found that the code of ethics had no effect on the study group.

The ACM has recently updated their code of ethics for developers. Emerson Murphy-Hill, professor of computer science at NC State and a coauthor of a paper on the study said, “We applauded the decision to update the ACM code of ethics, but wanted to know whether it would actually make a difference.”

What can we do to promote ethical behavior in computing?

It’s clear that software developers have an important role to play in the development of our digital infrastructure and algorithms that govern our everyday lives. They have a responsibility to write code that should safeguard users’ information, privacy, and rights. Software developers decide, among other things, how banks transact; how hospitals bill patients; and how computers, drones, and surveillance work. They are pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence and machine learning. But are they being held accountable when they flout ethical norms and the law of the land? There is a need to enforce the ACM code of ethics on developers. Clearly, guidelines don’t seem to deter developers from unethical behavior.

Dr Jessica Baron in her Forbes article on ethical software engineering said, “It’s time we stop coming up with sterile lists of to-dos and don’t-dos and instead put our energy into something with teeth. Let’s stop writing general guidelines and start being fiercely specific, where we can, about formal rules and consequences for bad behavior.” Enforcement seems to be the only way to get the message across to rogue developers. Patrick Lin, Director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly, said that peer pressure could be an effective tool as well. He suggested an industry culture that refuses to hire developers who don’t pay heed to ethics. Dr Baron believes that the onus should be on the developers to educate themselves on the potential harm their work can cause. She recommends a rigorous ethics education at workplace offered in the mode of continuing education for employees in the engineering streams.

We have a long way to go

In 2018, our collective faith in the effectiveness of international regulatory agencies came crashing down when it was reported that Volkswagen employed ingenious ways to cheat emission tests. The company got off easy with not many criminal prosecutions in Germany. However, in the United States, in less than 9 months, Volkswagen quickly ran out of luck and was required to pay approximately $15 billion in civil compensation and restitution to consumers and federal and state authorities—a loss of $25 billion when you account for criminal fines, penalties and recall of vehicles. The message is clear: we need to be ruthless with business giants who openly flout the rule of the law, or else we will continue to be vulnerable to such flagrantly criminal behavior.