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Entries tagged "ethics".

SENG4921 - Oral Exam Prep
27th June 2009

Here are the notes I made for and took into the SENG4921 oral exam.

As an after thought, you can see I wasn't prepared for all the options but this is the best I could do in the time. Some of my arguments here may not be very valid, but this is my preparation as it stands, not a blog post into the questions (that's my excuse for being sloppy).

Question 1: free choice

"Each student should prepare a topic of their own free choice concerned with some aspect of software, hardware, IT professional issues or ethics. This could be —but does not have to be— based on, or derived from, the discussions, seminars, debates, student run seminars and lectures given this semester. The question should be broad enough to not overlap with the other two questions. At the examination the student will be asked to present his/her topic and discussion.
If the free choice question deals directly with one of the Seminar or Lecture questions, then this will generally eliminate that question if one of the randomly chosen 3 for question 2 or 3. Note carefully that the elimination occurs after the random choice, not before."

After a little thought I think I will focus on DRM in this question. I think this is a good choice because,

  1. Its not covered in the other seminar and lecture questions,
  2. I know enough about the topic to be able to talk about it,
  3. There are actually some valid ethical questions that can be raised and debated here,
  4. ...

So the deal is I only have 5 minutes to talk about the professional issues and ethics surrounding DRM. I need to identify the issues involved, analyse the professional and/or ethical consequences and present the outcome. I will need to be careful that I address the right things as I only have 5 minutes.

The examiners will be looking for:
  • clear identification of the issues;
  • analysis of the professional and/or ethical consequences;
  • careful presentation of the outcomes.
There are no correct answers, but a good answer will give a clear indication of consequences and issues.

Identification of Issues

DRM is digital rights management. DRM technologies attempt to control use of digital media by preventing access, copying or conversion to other formats by end users.

Lastly DRM systems do not work, as most have been cracked. Once the DRM has been cracked by one person (who may be an expert) then can distribute this clean version to all over say BitTorrent. DVD's CSS was cracked,

From personal experience a while ago I downloaded an e-book (actually a standards document) from the UNSW library/publisher of the standard. It was a PDF document and they told me that it would expire after a week or so. It turns out that it used some JavaScript hide the text when the system date was at whatever was a week after the PDF was downloaded (so the web server was creating the PDF on the fly putting the expiry date and the download details into the PDF). This could be easily bypassed by disabling JavaScript, using a free PDF reader that does not support JavaSript, and so on. Furthermore you could easily use some software to extract the content of the PDF and resave it without the DRM. (Will I go to jail if I ever vist the US because of the DMCA?? Or even from Australian laws?)

Professional and/or ethical consequences

Ken noted in his introduction article that "In this course, we will be particularly concerned with developing your capacity to reason about the possible outcomes." Hence I will try to focus on the affects/consequences of DRM. Taking a consequential approach to ethical thinking requires one to consider the possible consequences. So some consequences of DRM that should be addressed when taking a ethical approach to DRM are,

These are all possible outcomes, yet they may not all be an ethical concern. This depends on your individual ethical principles. For me if DRM leads people to move to pirated material rather than paying the owner, then this under my ethical principles this is not a concern. This is strictly a business move and the consumer will not be harmed by doing this. If the company doesn't want people to pirate the matrial instead of buying it then they can simply remove their DRM and sell it DRM free.

But from a utilitarian perspective, DRM does little to stop the original creator receiving remuneration (if anything it may result in less remuneration), instead it causes great unhappiness. In this respect it is unethical.

As Cohen outlined professions come with these extra "professional" responsibilities. Including "public interest is paramount", public trust, but also client's interests. Most (if not all) DRM systems are not in the public's interest. They are riddled with problems and do very little to stop piracy. They turn honest customers into outlaws. The key thing that consumers need to be aware of is they are not purchasing products from the iTunes store rather they are purchasing a licence to use the music in a restricted set of conditions.

Question 2: Seminar Questions

1. "Engineering"

I think Wikipedia's summary of Engineering describes what is generally understood by the term 'Engineering'.

Engineering is the application of scientific and technical knowledge to solve human problems. Engineers use imagination, judgement, reasoning and experience to apply science, technology, mathematics, and practical experience. The result is the design, production, and operation of useful objects or processes.

Of course as a profession it comes with all the things that make it a professions such as responsibility to the public, client's interest, public trust, an so on.

Software and Computer Engineering can claim to be engineering professions as they meet this description of Engineering that I just quoted. Software and Computer Engineers apply scientific (mostly mathematical, or even Computer Science if you want) and technical knowledge to solve problems. They use experience and so no to apply this to the task at hand. They also do a lot of design work and the actual production of the software/hardware.

Computer programming vs. Software Engineering vs. Software Development

As a job title. Sure your official job title may be "Computer Programmer" or you may graduate with a "Computer Science" degree. That doesn't mean you never do any "engineering".


My opinion of what is generally understood by "Engineering" as a profession is (to quote Wikipedia here), "Engineering is the application of scientific and technical knowledge to solve human problems. Engineers use imagination, judgement, reasoning and experience to apply science, technology, mathematics, and practical experience. The result is the design, production, and operation of useful objects or processes." And of course as a profession it comes with all the things that make it a professions such as responsibility to the public, client's interest, public trust, an so on.


2/3. ACM Code of Ethics/Therac 25

4. Technical Issues with the Therac 25 Case

At the end of the day (as with many famous disasters) there were many times where if something was done better the problem may not have occured.

6. Killer Robot

Randy Samuels - Wrote the code that cause the robot to malfunction.

8. Intellectual Property

From an ethical analysis,

Affects Computer Scientists and Software Engineers.

From an economic view,

9. Datavallience

Two types of dataveillance.

Three examples,

Professionals have a responsibility to act in the public's interest (as well as the clients interest). They also have codes of ethics to adhear to. Many ethical principles would lead to the conclusion that the people who are having their information monitored should be notified of this. To act in the public interest, the public needs to know when they are being monitored. This gives them the choice, to either use encryption, stop using the service, or something else. However professionals should make an exception to this rule when the matter is of national security or something other when it can be justified that not notifying is acting in the publics interest. This is what ethics is all about. Dealing with these exceptions to the rule.

  1. What is dataveillance?
  2. Is it immoral to collect data about other people?
  3. What personal data is currently being collected?
  4. What new opportunities are there to collect even more personal data?
  5. How can dataveillance be regulated?
  6. What advice would you give to non-specialists about safeguarding personal information?

It depends on the situation. The ethical approach I subscribe to is that the person who is having data collected on them, should be made aware of what is being collected, and that it is being collected.

Question 3: Lecture Questions

1. Theoretical Underpinnings of Ethics

"Essentially, you are being asked to demonstrate how different ethical principles could be used to produce different outcomes.  The important part of your answer will be the identification of the different principles and how your reasoning would proceed from those principles."


And now on to the part relevant the the question at hand,

To make a moral judgement you need to make a judgement, have some justification for that judgement, and also have some principle that lead you to believe that that justification was right. (judgement > justification > principle) If you don’t have this, you don’t have a moral judgement.

2. Professionalism and Ethical Responsibilities

Other things of interest,

3. Open source from an Economical Approach

Closed source (Sales Force): For every $1 spent on software development, $10 is spent on marketing Open Source (SugarCRM): for every $4 spent on development, $1 is spent on marketing

6. Freehills Talk/Software Patents

Quick Summary

Ethical issues for Software Engineers/Computer Scientists

This comes down to your ethical principles. My ethical principle resolve around helping others, advancing knowledge, and working together for maximum benefit. So under my ethics software patents are unethical because they hinder the progress and development of (in the case of software patents), software. For example, someone patents the GIF encoding scheme, this can be used to lock out people from using this method. It also locks the scheme up so in the theoretical case where someone patents X, which lasts for 20 years. Person B invents X two years later but cannot use or distribute that invention because of the patent.

If you don't want others exploiting or using or building on your invention then don't share the details with anyone.

We are forgetting that many people (think Linux) don't need the incentive of a patent to invent things or make them useful to the public. Patents hinder the publics access to certain processes.

If everyone was free to take others hard work and put it to good use, and build upon it and share that then progress would move faster than ever before.

But this is just my view of the matter. I do grant that I have this view because for me, progress (in terms of new and better software, etc) comes by people working on their own will because they want to for the fun of it (an example open source software, much of it was done with little commercial incentive). No money is wasted on lawyers who make no progress to the field. Instead everyone can work on pushing progress forward.

The ethics is solid. In fact patents were originally designed very ethically. Look at the consequential utilitarianism approach.

But things have changed. Software patents have not helped with this.

Back to patents.

7. Law

Well as an ethical professional engineer you have an obligation/duty to act in the client's and the public's interest. As such you should notify the company of the situation and let them make a decision based on that. This is acting in the clients interest. Even with out this certain ethical principles such as openness may require you to notify the other party

Contrasted to an ordinary businessman who has no duty (thought they ought to do at least what is minimally decent) to act in the publics interest.

Different Standards when choosing to obey a law or not. Illegal? Litigation Risk? 'Professional' Standard(will your peers reject you)? Ethics(will your friends and children reject you)?

9. Internet Censorship


Professional/Ethical Ideas / Social/Technical

A social issue is over-legislating. eg. . For example certain materials (which probably includes child pornography) is illegal to view, so if you happen to accidentally find this material on the internet and you want to report it to the police so they can track down the perpetrator, you are in a conundrum. If you tell the police about it, then you must have viewed the material yourself which is illegal so you may face criminal charges, hence you cannot report it.

Another social issue. Is it just illegal content? Should the government be deciding what to view or not?

Technical Issue. What about things like VPN's, tor...? The internet is huge and dynamic? What about a tag system.

Tags: ethics, seng4921.
SENG4921 - Lec 07 - Legal perspectives on system development - Liability, litigation risk, professional standards, and ethics
8th May 2009

I was looking forward to this talk by David Vaile since his name keeps popping up everywhere I go. So here are some rough notes I took down (and then expanded on some points now). His full slides can be found here.

This slide gives a nice overview.

features-of-the-legal-system(David Vaile. Legal perspectives on system development)

Lawyers can speak for clients (i.e. on their behalf). So you may want to be careful of what they are saying for you.

Cases are often about motivation. Why you did something. Your intent. Its not a whole science. eg. murder/manslaughter. did you intentionally push someone in front of a train, or did you slip and accidentally push them in front of a train. This can make a difference in a trial.

Criminal --> Beyond reasonable doubt. Civil --> Probability. Does not need to be beyond reasonable doubt.

Lawyer's will generally say "with respect I think you are wrong" rather than the direct "you are wrong".

Law exists to regulate. "It won't just work out itself [if we don't have laws]".

Courts can be expensive and risky. Going to court may not always be the best idea.

ASIC, ACCC... can step in sometimes. This strips away the companies advantage (lots of $$'s and lawyers) in a case against an individual.

"If you make something accessible in another country is that publishing in that country?" One court case says yes. I find this surprising. If you publish something on a web server in your country and allow all IP's to access your web pages then another country considers you publishing in that country??? Unfortunately Vaile didn't give the case reference for this (UPDATE: This is the case and here is a list of law journal articles referring to the case. I'll probably make another post once I get a chance to take a closer look at it).

Due to the free trade agreement its now illegal to copy even when allowed if you break the DRM.

Suing your customers --> turns them against your company! This builds a coalition of difference to try to change the law. The turning point is if that coalition is large enough. Could this mean that to win the copyright fight we must get the film studios to sue as many people as possible? I would hope not, and rather hope that people become aware of the current problems on their own accord not through legal action against them.

Litigation risk may change over time. You may do something now that has a low risk of litigation but in a year or so that may change. That minimal risk does not increase your chances of winning the case.

This slide from Vaile's talk is enlightening for me.

different-standards(David Vaile. Legal perspectives on system development)

Mainly because its so easy to fall through the top one that you forget there are layers underneath. Copyright laws is so tough and stupid its hard to convince yourself that you should not break them. You loose faith in the law and begin to not worry about anything. But the law is just one standard. Professional standards and ethics come into play. Let me look at some example cases.


Litigation Risk

'Professional' standards (will your peers & colleagues reject you?)

Ethics (Will your children & friends reject you?)




Yes (probably)

Yes (probably)

Copyright Infringement of a feature film to avoid paying





Copyright Infringement of a feature film to transfer a purchased DVD to a portable device (prior to amendments)


Very Low

No (unlikely)

No (unlikely)

I think its just as important, if not more important to consider the bottom two standards (professional standards and ethics) than the top two (liability and litigation risk). These bottom two are still important even if you can get away with the illegal act.

Privacy. There are two interests here, the individual and the government.

The Individual. "I want to be left alone."


The Government. “What have you got to hide? Tell us.”

When a political party is trying to pass a law public interest/politics may come into play and cause a party to back down on a bill, even if they can get it passed and want it passed.



Upper House



Lower House


House of Representatives

The Australian SPAM act has no private right to sue. Must rely on ACMA. The US CANSPAM act has private rights to sue.

Tags: ethics, law, seng4921.
SENG4921 - Lec 02 - Moral Reasoning & Professional Ethics
21st March 2009

Part II of Stephen Cohen's lecture, (audio here) (2008 lecture slides here). Just as a side note, I think I've picked up more by listening to the audio where I can stop it to think about what was said, that I have by going to the lecture. Also it seems that the content in the two lecture doesn't fall under the title really well. It seems some of the stuff from lecture one falls under lecture two's title, and some of the stuff from lecture two falls under lecture ones title.

Cohen started by talking about some ethical theories. Here is a diagram based on the one we were shown.


On the left we have the group of ethical theories, consequential, that is based on the view that "Acts are right based on their consequences." Under this umbrella there are four different views as shown.

On the right we have another view where ethics is based on non-consequential things. That is, to determine if an act is right or wrong it in fact has nothing to do with the consequences of the act. Instead it has to do with other things such as rights, duties, contracts, fairness, etc.

Or to put it as Ken Robinson and Achim Hoffman have it in their introduction article,

Kant was a non-consequential thinker. His idea (how I have interpreted it) was that good will is what makes an act right, where good will is recognising your duty and then being able to make yourself do it (eg. you crash into a parked car you realise it is your duty to leave your details and then your able to make yourself to do that, even if you don't want to do it).

Cohen then goes on to make a very good point about autonomy. The audio segment is embedded here, (or direct download)

[audio http://www.cse.unsw.edu.au/~amha119/se4921-090317-autonomy_cut.mp3]

"Kant was the person, and this has been a feature of thinking about ethics ever since Kant. A number of people think that a really important feature about ethical performance is autonomy, autonomy. Which means being free from various kinds of constraints and being able to generate something all on your own. Autonomy, I do it not because I have to, not because I've been trained to do it. In that respect you see you could be free ...--go do whatever you want, but you've now been as it were brainwashed to do a certain kind of thing--. You would be free but you wouldn't be autonomous. Autonomous is being able to come up with the principle, to generate it yourself and then make yourself do it. And that has been a very important element in thinking about ethics." --Stephen Cohen, 2009.

Aristotle on the other hand thinks ethics is about having the right character. Imagine there's person walking along a pier and he sees someone who's drowning. The person with a good character (a good kind of person) does think twice, they pick up the lifefloat tube and trow it to them. This person has good ethical values as a result of their good character. Taking another approach, same situation but now someone who doesn't have good character who doesn't value human life. They don't want to save this person, but they know that they ought to save them so they throw them the lifefloat to save them, despite the person not wanting to do it. This person does not have good character, but they have good ethical vales because they recognised what they ought to do, and they did it. This is Kant's view.

Another view, sometimes called contractarism, focuses on "Keeping the terms of the contract."

Another slide that Cohen showed was this.


Cohen makes the point that in order to have made a moral judgement you need to make a judgement, have some justification for that judgement, and also have some principle that lead you to believe that that justification was right.

judgement > justification > principle

If you don't have this, you don't have a moral judgement. He also says that the way you could discover that something is not a moral judgement, rather you have some bias or preference towards that judgement and it is not a moral judgement is if you don't have that, you don't have judgement > justification > principle.

If you are more committed to a particular judgement rather than the principle. Cohen then goes on to say that he thinks this is how we go on about moral reasoning. We try to put these two together. Sometimes we modify the judgement in light of the principle, and sometimes we modify the the principle in light of the judgement. These are exceptions to the rule (or the principle).


Cohen then talks about business and the profession.


The big difference between profession and business is profession have this extra bit about the public interest and the client interest. They have a duty to survey the whole landscape and do what is best. Professions and professionals must do that stuff as above. You can't be a profession if you have some extra incentive (eg. being paid to do something against the client and public's interest).

"A person’s having a conflict of interest is not the same thing as a person’s being affected by a conflict of interest." People who say they don't have a conflict of interest just because they are not affected by (or more specifically their judgement is not affected by) a conflict of interest doesn't mean they don't have a conflict of interest.


Two more good slides. This first one shows two organisational models, one where the top has great power, with this comes great responsibility, the other where they all have power, with this comes great trust.


The second shows some of the modern differences between a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct.


Any principle/value will require judgement. Say you subscribe to the principle of honesty. At some stage you will need to make a judgement based on this principle. For example (and Cohen makes the story sound more convincing than I do here) you are at home with your close friend, Bob. Bob says he is scared as some crazy person is out to get him. Someone then knocks on your door, you answer and there is a big strong man there with a knife in his hand who asks is Bob here. Honesty does not require that you say yes he is here. You make a judgement on the principle/value, and in this respect Code's of Ethics are empowering.

Code's of Conduct are different. They are not for introducing new values. They are there to remove judgement. They tell you exactly what to do in specific situations. One area they may deal with is gifts/bribes. They may say that you cannot accept any gift you receive over a given about. They take the heat off.

Although Cohen did not cover this in the lecture, the lecture slides from last year looked into management and leadership issues and ways to promote ethical behaviour in an organisation. I find this interesting so I'll go over a couple of these things here.

One last thing about morals and ethics. Back in COMP1917 Richard Buckland made a good statement he said something along the lines of come up with your own ethics and moral beliefs, and stick to them. I think this is good advice.

Also here are some notes made by the COMP1917 class which seem relevant.

  • "Ethics is the way you behave when people are not around and there is a spanking new Alienware laptop sitting on the table in front of you waiting for you to steal.
  • When you face ethical dilemmas at work, don't forget you can ask other professionals from your field for advice on how to handle such situations.
  • Discussed a large range of examples of ethical dilemmas and scenarios which present interesting problems:
    1. Hitler's guards - Each of Hitler's guards, when told to throw the next lot of prisoners into the gas chambers must have each thought inside that they didn't want to do it, but nobody had the courage to say anything. Maybe if one guard refused, all the others would, then a message might get sent that what they were doing was wrong.
    2. Richard's friends - was put on the spot by her boss in an interview with a client to lie about the progress of her software. In spur of the moment she lied and ever since the boss does it regularly now. She feels like she is doing the wrong thing and doesn't know what to do.
  • Richard's advice on ethics was for each person to sit down and work out exactly what they think is ethically wrong and ethically right, and then never break that. It doesn't matter what he thinks, in the end it's YOUR ethics and morals that count for yourself. He said that breaking morals breaks the spirit and that we get extreme happiness from obeying our morals and doing the right thing. He also said we need to plan ahead, and attempt to predict ethical dilemmas before they arise, that way we can think about them and make a proper decision, since during the heat of the moment we will often give into temptation and fail miserably.
  • Whistleblowing - extremely difficult thing to do, the company/government will attempt to discredit your character and make a mess of your image etc. If anyone feels like whistleblowing read a book called "the Whistleblowers Handbook" by Brian Martin. Richard says its a great read."-- COMP1917 08s1 Class.


Cohen, Stephen. 2009s1 SENG4921 Lecture. Audio. 2008 Slides.

Tags: ethics, seng4921.
SENG4921 - Lec 01 - Theoretical Underpinnings of Ethics
13th March 2009

Today's This week's lecture for SENG4921 - Professional Issues and Ethics was given by Stephen Cohen of the School of History and Philosophy, UNSW. The lecture title was “Theoretical Underpinnings of Ethics”.

It was a very interesting lecture for me, and I thought it was presented very well. You can find his lecture slides from last year here, and the audio here.

This post is basically a summary of the notes I made in the lecture, so you should be able to follow though the slides as its in chronological order. I've mixed in my own interpretation so it may not be the case that this is exactly what Cohen said and/or meant.

Relativism is doing what the culture is doing just because everyone else is doing it. This is does not make it right. For example say you go to another country where bribery is common. This does not make it right. Nor does the line of thought "everyone else is doing it so it must be okay".

For example if you bump into a parked car and dent the other car's bumper your thinking here is focused on answering the question "What should I do?". However if for example you are asked to list some important moral characteristics your thinking here is focused on answering the question "What kind of person should I be?".

These two questions are the underpinnings of ethics.

You don't always end up doing what you think you should do.

"What kind of person should I be?" relates to a "Code of Ethics". This is what the employees or organisation are. "What should I do?" relates to a "Code of Conduct".  This is what the employees or organisation should do.

When we talk about ethics we mean prescriptive ethics. This is what you should or ought to do, compared to descriptive ethic which is what people do do.

Morals and ethics are really the same.

Ethical is compared to (i.e. very different to)

To borrow a diagram from Cohen's slides,


Rules, consequences, professional code, law, loyalty to your employer, confidentiality, requirements of your role, etc. all factor into ethics.

Rules and consequences are requirements of morality of an individual (private morality), the other is public morality which comes into play when you occupy a role, it is mediated by the institution.

and another diagram,


I think this is the foundation of a lot of Cohen's message.

Cohen's advice, "be aware of these things".

"At work, you don't leave your private, personal values at the door!"
"Your ethical values must be there."

All these things often conflict, but you must make a decision. You may ask "Who's to judge" these things. The answer is always "You, as an individual." (from whatever perspective whether it be legal, ethical...)

I feel this is a key and important part of the lecture, and I know that this is not easy.

You have an obligation to your employer, at the same time you have your own ethics which may conflict. Would you do something you think is unethical just because you don't want to lose your job? I don't know what I would do...

Cohen makes another good example. Say there was a rule that said all motor vehicles must stop at a stop sign. But what about police who are chasing a criminal. What about an ambulance. What about people rushing someone injured to the hospital. As Cohen puts it, the right thing to do in all these cases is to run the stop sign. But we will continue to find more cases. The rules cannot cover them all.

The point he is trying to make is "you can't clear up ethics stuff with more rules." You need to make an ethical judgement.

I agree with this. Though this sounds like a tough legal issue. Who would be the judge of the ethical judgement? What if you broke the law in order to do what you thought was ethical? Would claiming you made an ethical judgement hold up in a litigation suite? I'm guessing not.

Another good example Cohen gave was the "dead man's break". As it was told State Rail implemented the dead man's break in it's trains, so if the driver got off the seat a break would be applied. The drivers didn't like this so some disabled it. As a result a train crashed because of this. So what did State Rail try to then do, they tried to make a fool-proof break. This doesn't work.

Whistleblowing - As Cohen puts it, the whistleblower almost always suffers. Its something that you are never obligated to do.


Cohen, Stephen. Theoretical Underpinnings of Ethics. 2009. SENG4921 - Professional Issues and Ethics Lecture 1.

Tags: ethics, seng4921.

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