Whole Earth Review

Computer Ethics.

Computer Ethics. – book reviews

Mike Godwin

Despite being a textbook, Computer Ethics is surprisingly readable. I’d thought from the title that this book would rehash the usual subject matter of computer-ethics panels — whether it’s ever appropriate to “enter” someone else’s computer without authorization, whether viruses and worms are the equivalent of vandalism or sabotage, and so on. Forester and Morrison go much further, exploring the whole domain of computer-ethics topics. I was pleased to see that the authors approach such questions as whether a software manufacturer has an ethical obligation to its customers to provide a working (and safe) product, or whether a computer researcher can ethically accept an SDI grant for a project she doesn’t believe will ever work. The book is a good attempt to deal with the emerging field of computer ethics comprehensively, and its discussions are punctuated with some memorable (and sometimes frightening) anecdotes.

Without adequate legal protection, genuinely innovatory individuals and companies might wonder whether the meagre rewards for their efforts really justify the time and money expended on original research and development. On the other hand, intellectual property owners might try to stake too large a claim for their innovations in order to squelch new ideas and to get a jump ahead of their competitors. This could strengthen the hand of established large firms over small entrepreneurial firms, who have been the traditional innovators of the industry. The question is whether the developmental work put in justifies the influence innovators may gain over both users and competitors. There is a clear need to strike a balance between the interests of these three groups, as we tread the fine line between piracy and progress.

The mass media has tended to sensationalize hacking, whilst soundly condemning it. But there are other points of view: for example, in many instances the breaching of systems can provide more effective security in future, so that other (presumably less well-intentioned) hackers are prevented from causing real harm. A good illustration of this was the penetration of British Telecom’s electronic mail system in 1984 by Steven Gold and Robert Schifreen, which resulted in a rude message being left in none other than the Duke of Edinburgh’s account! This incident attracted enormous publicity and led directly to improved security arrangements for the whole of the Prestel system. Gold and Schifreen were therefore extremely indignant at being treated as criminals — and this illustrates once again the discrepancy between what the law considers to be criminal behavior and how hackers perceive themselves. Although Gold and Schifreen were convicted under the Forgery Act and fined a total of 2,350 pounds, an appeal saw the charges quashed. It was argued that since the hackers caused no damage and did not defraud anyone, then they could not be held guilty of an offence.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group