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In-Class Activity

A set of case studies and discussion questions.

You are encourage to consult and reference the ACM Code of Ethics when writing your answers .

For each of the following, work with at most two other people to develop an answer. Write your answers in a MS Word document with your initials at the top of the page.

After 45 minutes, you will be asked to post your answers here. Do not post your answers until asked.

We will then discuss the answers and responses. On Thursday, we will discuss a framework for considering ethical questions.

Your answers should be written in such a way that they can be defended. Be prepared to be asked difficult questions and to respond with answers that are on point and show that you have thought critically about all of the implications of your responses.

Your final homework will be based this activity. Listen carefully to the discussion; I will identify "quality" answers and also answers that are not satisfactory or are incomplete. The homework will be graded based on the quality of your answers (some answers will not have a "correct" answer). Briefly, quality answers (1) are correct when possible and (2) show evidence of critical thinking and consideration of one or more implications that would follow if a rule implied by an answer was followed generally.


  1. Definition
  2. Discrimination
  3. Predictive Policing
  4. Encryption
  5. Why Computer Ethics?
  6. Scenario

1. Definition

Find several definitions of "Ethics". Cite your sources. Identify the definition that you think is "best" and justify your answer.

2. Discrimination

From [1]

In determining requirements for an information system to be used in an employment agency, the client explains that, when displaying applicants whose qualifications appear to match those required for a particular job, the names of white applicants are to be displayed ahead of those of nonwhite applicants, and names of male applicants are to be displayed ahead of those of female applicants.

3. Predictive Policing

From [2]

The National Institute of Justice defines predictive policing as “taking data from disparate sources, analyzing them and then using the results to anticipate, prevent and respond more effectively to future crime.” Some of these disparate sources include crime maps, traffic camera data, other surveillance footage, and social media network analysis. But at what point does the possibility of a crime require intervention? Should someone be punished for a crime they are likely to commit, based on these sources? Are we required to inform potential victims? How far in advace can we forecast crimes?

4. Encryption

The software that is used to encrypt messages relies on mathematical equations that take a very long time to solve.

While working on your PhD thesis, you make a discovery of a new equation. Later you realize that your discovery would allow messages to be be easily decrypted.

Would it be ethical for you to publish your discovery?

5. Why Computer Ethics?

Gotterbarn (1991), p. 27; see also [3]

The invention of the printing press was a pivotal event in the history of the transmission of culture, but there is no such thing as Printing-press Ethics. The locomotive revolutionized the transportation industry, but there is no such thing as Locomotive Ethics. The telephone forever changed the way we communicate with other human beings, but there is no such thing as Telephone Ethics. The tractor transformed the face of agriculture around the world, but there is no such thing as Tractor Ethics. The automobile has made it possible for us to work at great distances from our local neighborhoods, but there is no such thing as Commuter Ethics.
Why, therefore, should there be any such thing as Computer Ethics?

6. Scenario

Safety Critical Systems Adapted from [4]

You are employed by VaporWare, Inc. (VWI) in its Software Development Group. Among your responsibilities is the testing and quality sign-off of custom software before full release to the customer or client. Normally, this is the last in-house work prior to delivery of product.

VWI is a small, privately-held, "start-up" which does custom hardware and software design. You own no part of VWI, but your employment contract specifies that in two years you will be considered for inclusion in the limited partnership. A majority vote of the owners is sufficient for you to be so rewarded.

You are the only person involved in the testing of the software named APUDA. The product is to be delivered to One Big Monopoly, Inc. (OBM) who intend to use APUDA in an unstated process control system. The APUDA product was to be designed to a specification furnished by OBM, which has from the outset refused to discuss the application. (Rumors have circulated that the product is being developed for the CIA. Still other rumors have it that market and trade considerations is the reason for secrecy.)

The profit to VWI, based on an on-time delivery of APUDA, is estimated to be $170 thousand. There is no bonus for early delivery. (Other estimates indicate that for the current fiscal year the total VWI profits will be $1.2 million.) A penalty clause stipulates that payment to VWI will be reduced by an amount such that VWI profit for the APUDA project will be reduced by about $20 thousand for each day of delay after the due day (D-Day). Thus, for example, if the product is 10 days late, VWI will suffer a loss of $30 thousand (20K/day*10days = 200K late penalty; 200K penalty - 170K profit = 30K loss).

Your close friend Pat was the team leader in writing the code. Because of illness to one of the team members, and another leaving VWI for another job, you received APUDA 3 days after the scheduled time to begin full-functionality testing. If you work 18-hour days, and if only minor bugs need fixing, you are confident that you can complete the testing to the original schedule and thus ship "on time." You begin testing.

Testing proceeds well and is nearly complete at 3:00 a.m. on the last day. For on-time delivery APUDA source-code is to ship by overnight carrier at 4:00 p.m. this (last) day. You enter the next-to-last input sequence and to your horror observe that the output states are not as specified. You examine the input sequence just entered and are relieved to note that you made an error in two bits in entering the input-variable sequence. Entering the correct input sequence yields the correct output. You complete the test and all is well. Of the 1,024 allowed input sequences of 16-bit patterns, only the next-to-last pattern yielded erroneous outputs.

You check again the OBM specification and observe that it does not specify performance for input bit-errors, that is, except that if an input sequence is not in the set of allowed inputs the outputs shall remain in its previous states.

You talk to Pat at 8:00 a.m. of D-Day and are assured by Pat that, "The code meets specifications."


After reading the scenario given in Ethics#Scenario, provide answers to each of the following questions from your boss:

  • What is status of the software testing as of D-Day?
  • What are your recommendations, (not suggestions!), for action.
  • Give details about any calculation that you made to support your recommendations. Note that each of the numbers given in the problem statement were given for a reason and thus should probably be included in your calculation.

Be prepared to defend and discuss your answers in class. You must use the terms Verification and Validation at least once in your answers.

Questions above adapted from [5].

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