Computer ethics refers to ethical principles focused on how end users, programmers, and others who are involved with the use and development of computer programs and equipment choose to conduct themselves when making use of computer technology. This includes how these individuals choose to conduct themselves and their use of programs and other computer resources in an online environment. Ethics of this type are often concerned with issues such as privacy rights, respect for intellectual property, and in general translating the moral principles that are commonly found in any code of ethics to a computer based environment.
As with any type of ethical code, computer ethics has to do not only choosing to engage in certain actions but also to refrain from others. For example, these ethics would compel users to share data that is considered in the public domain with others. At the same time, those same ethics would preclude sharing data that is considered proprietary. From this perspective, computer ethics can be seen as doing the right thing at the right time.
There are a number of issues that require the use of computer ethics. For example, proper ethics would call for not duplicating and distributing proprietary software to others, without the express permission of the entity holding the copyright to that software. In the case of intellectual property, individuals who have access to that property along with permission to use that data as part of their work would not pass that information on to others that were not authorized. This means that if a program is developed for use in-house by a company, employees will not share that program with anyone outside the business unless permission is granted.
Computer ethics applies to anyone who uses a computer. This means that individuals who wish to practice ethical behavior will not attempt to access the email accounts of others without permission, engage in unauthorized hacking activities, and will not make any attempt to secure proprietary data for the purpose of exploiting that data. Just as general ethics requires that people not attempt to gain access to private documents of others, this same concept translates into the electronic world, with users choosing to respect the privacy of everyone else who makes use of electronic technology.
Breaches in computer ethics are sometimes addressed by laws and regulations, but at other times may not be offenses that can easily be prosecuted. The fact that there are those who choose to not practice ethical behavior when using computer systems is evidenced by the ever growing demand for antivirus software, spyware protection programs, and other resources designed to prevent unauthorized access to data. As with any code of ethics, computer ethics focuses on dealing honestly and openly with others, respecting boundaries, and in general observing the rights of others to keep their information private if they so choose.