The ACS Code of Ethics

By Tom Worthington

ACS Canberra Branch

At the Virtual Ethics Symposium - 12 March 1993

Good afternoon I am Tom Worthington, Director of the Community Affairs Board of the ACS. Please turn to the ACS code of ethics in your symposium papers. I am also a Justice of the Peace and authorised to administer oaths. Such oaths are legally as well as morally binding. Please stand, raise your right hand and repeat after me "I will act with professional responsibility and integrity...".

That's enough; had you worried didn't I? There is a immense difference between reading something individually, as an abstract concept and experiencing it as part of a social group.


I am not an ethics expert, just an information technology partitioner. I started as a computer programmer (after Rob Thomsett's lunch time talk I should describe myself as a "SNAP": Sensitive New Age Programmer). All programmers are suspicious of computer documentation. The ACS code of ethics is a type of documentation.

Programmers only turn to documentation as a last desperate step in trying to work out what is going wrong with a program. They mistrust documentation as it tends to express the author's wish of what the program should do, when the program was conceived, not what it actually does now. The programmer instead examines the internal construction of the code and its behaviour in operation to get a more realistic view of what the program actually does.

In the same way we should look at how the ethical system in information technology is constructed and actually operates, in contrast to the prescriptive "documentation" in the ACS code of ethics.


In the ten years of my computing career I have had to resort to the code of ethics a handful of times. But I will relate three in general terms, without breeching confidences. I have been employed by companies and several government departments, so you can only speculate which these might refer to:


If the ACS code of ethics works properly it should be invisible. Like documentation for any good computer system, if you have to read it something is wrong.

Some tertiary IT courses, such as those at the University of Queensland and Griffith University now include a component on ethics. I believe that all undergraduate courses should. The should force this by refusing course accreditation without an ethics component.

The ACS publications also play an important part in confronting IT professionals with ethical issues. The ACS's new publication in its first edition this month, explores the issue of pirating of computer software.

The ACS's new certification process includes a mandatory component on ethics and social issues. In theory if these courses work, the trained professionals will never need to read the code in their career, it will built into their way of working.

Another systems it will be built into is the government purchasing process. This requires both government employees purchasing and company people selling to them to subscribe to a code of ethics. By implication, if not explicitly, IT professionals will be judged in the government purchasing process by the ACS code, as that is the one relevant to their profession.

Ethics will normally be enforced by peer group pressure. The condemnation of ones friends and colleagues can be a greater force than any legal sanction.

The ACS has not been active enough in aiding peer group pressure, by suspending or expelling members for ethical lapses. This would assist the practitioner in explaining the practical benefits of ethical behaviour to the clients and employers.

An organisation whose IT professionals have been suspended for professional misconduct is likely to suffer financially. People are less likely to do business with such an organisation. This can be a powerful argument for ethical behaviour.


There are two problems with any code of ethics: they are either too general, or too specific and prescriptive. What is useful are courses and "hypertheticals", such as the one we have done today.

Like computer documentation, to be effective our code of ethics must change with time and with feedback from its users.

Perhaps we really do need a "virtual ethics" system for ethical training. This would be computer based, similar to a flight simulator and an "adventure" computer game. It would present ethical problems to work with. The trainee would interact with virtual people in a virtual environment; thus the term virtual ethics.


The ACS is a member of the International Federation for Information Processing. IFIP has been working on an international code of ethics for some time. A report was published in September 1992 (Reference A).

IFIP is struggling with a number of difficult issues in creating an international code. Work was done based on the existing national codes from the USA and UK. These are similar to the ACS code.

This work was attacked as biased, being written by rich males, with a western european cultural background. It was claimed to not include the issues relevant to females and those with a non-western outlook and with poor third world countries.

These criticisms are reasonable. As an IT professional I can travel anywhere on the planet and my technical skills will be immediately relevant. However my ethical skills may not be. Our technical computer systems are standardised, but our cultures are not and perhaps should not be.

It may not be possible to have a detailed code of ethics which standardised across the world. The best might be to require IT professionals to work within the norms of the society they are part of. When working in a different cultural area them must adjust their actions to suit. If they cannot adjust they must decline the work. The alternative is a form of technical cultural imperialism. Imposing alien values in the name of technical advancement.


There are no final or simple answers with ethical issues. If we have left you with an uneasy feeling that you need to do more, but some ideas of possible action the day has been worthwhile.


"Ethics of Computing: Information Technology and Responsibility", IFIP Technical Committee 9, Working Group 9.2, Madrid September 1992

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