ethical code for software engineering professionals?

Medical professionals have  professional ethical codes. For instance, the psychologists who (it is argued) helped devised improved torture methods for the U.S. government are accused of violating the ethical code of their profession.

Do software engineers and others who write software have professional ethical duties?

Might one of them be to do one’s best to create secure software (rather than intentionally releasing software with vulnerabilities for the purposes of allowing people in the know to exploit), and responsibly disclosing any security vulnerabilities found in third party software (rather than keeping them close so they can be used them for exploits)?

If so, are the software developers at the NSA (and, more likely, government contractors working for the NSA) guilty of unethical behavior?

Of course, the APA policy didn’t keep the psychologists from doing what they did, and there is some suggestion that the APA even intentionally made sure to leave enough loophole, which they potentially regret.   And there have been similar controversies within Anthropology. There’s no magic bullet to ethical behavior from simply writing rules, but I still think it’s a useful point for inquiry, at least acknowledging that there is such a thing as professional ethics for the profession, and providing official recognition that these discussions are part of the profession.

Are there ethical duties of software engineers and others who create software?  As software becomes more and more socially powerful, is it important to society that this be recognized? Are these discussions happening?  What professional bodies might they take place in? (IEEE? ACM?).  The ACM has a code of ethics, but it’s pretty vague, it seems easy to justify just about any profit-making activity.

Are these discussions happening?   Will the extensive Department of Defense funding of Computer Science (theoretical and applied) in the U.S. make it hard to have these discussions? (When I googled, the discussion that came up of how DoD funding effects computer science research was from 1989 — there may be self-interested reasons people aren’t that interested in talking about this).

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3 Responses to ethical code for software engineering professionals?

  1. danc86 says:

    Mathematicians at least have been talking seriously about this for a while (see for example https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2014/03/should_mathematicians_cooperat.html).

    On the other hand, I haven’t seen anything similar coming out of IEEE or ACM. I guess the defence sector is too lucrative a customer for software developers to give it up. Or maybe we are just looser with our collective morals than our colleagues in mathematics.

  2. Ronan McHugh says:

    funnily enough I’ve been having thoughts in the same direction for a while. My ire has been equally directed at “gamifying” enthusiasts who make money promoting addictive behaviour among users (Facebook and friends) as well as supposedly respectable computer corporations who use every opportunity to foist adware and other rubbish onto unwitting users (think Java updates).

  3. Ronan McHugh says:

    A GitHub repository with a skeleton doc might be a good starting point.

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