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Notes > Professional Software Practice Introduction

Ethical issues and software engineering are closely related. A computer scientist has to be able to take into consideration ethical viewpoints and laws. A professional needs to be aware of the different contexts of potential ethical issues and be able to deal with them effectively.

Software piracy is one area that requires ethical analysis. Piracy can occur in the forms of "softlifting" and warez/appz that are distrubuted over the Internet. Different people will come to different conclusions over whether it is ethical to supply "pirated" goods.

There are various ethical perspectives people can take. It is normally possible to categorize people into one of two very general groups: "Absolutism" and "Relativism". Within these two distint ethical groups there are many more sub-groups with various ethical stances. It is important to note that most people, if not all, have a mixture of ethical views that draw from many of these well-defined groups of views.

Absolutism takes the view that ethics are the same at all times, wherever you are, and whoever is around you. There are certain moral rules and laws that do not change and should be obeyed. Relativism is more tolerant towards various ethical issues. Within Relativism, Consequentialism involves the results of an action determining whether it is ethical or not i.e. does it affect people or the environment etc... in a generally positive manner.

When it comes to software engineering, the ethical viewpoints of the managers, staff and clients will affect how decisionas are made. Any course of action would need to be morally justified. Also, and important factor that computer professionals need to remember is the matter of legal liability when it comes to producing software systems and if something is to go wrong in any way. Who is responsible may not be seen to be the same person by all involved depending on their ethical viewpoints.

The Computer Misuse Act was introduced in 1990 and created 3 new legal offences:

  • Unauthorised access to a computer
  • Unauthorised access with intent to commit or facilitate commission of further offences - more serious than the first offense
  • Unauthorised modification of computer material - deleting or editing files, for example, in order to hinder the operation of a computer or to gain unauthorised access to programs or files

Hacking describes the activities of a "ethical hacker" who on the whole will have positive motives. The hacker will look for system vulnerabilities but publish their findings. Deciding whether this type of hacking is ethically acceptable or not depends on the individual's ethical perspective.

Cracking describes a hacker who breaks into systems with the intent of causing damage or stealing data.

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