Software has become an integral part of society, affecting how we work, live, act, and think. As a result, the impact of software engineers is undeniable. They shape businesses and people across the globe, making them as influential as modern-day celebrities and politicians. This raises the importance of ethics for software engineers and how to ensure that technology is used responsibly.

In this blog post, we will discuss the Software Engineering Code of Ethics, why software engineering ethics are important, tips for software engineers to ensure their work is ethical, and the ethical dilemmas a software engineer may encounter.

What is software Ethics?

The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice outlines eight principles that software engineers must adhere to. These principles summarize aspirations for the profession at a high level and make certain that individuals within the profession are committed to the health, safety, and welfare of the public above all else. The eight principles are as follows:

  • Public: Act consistently with the public interest.
  • Client and employer: Act in the best interests of their client and employer consistent with the public interest.
  • Product: Ensure that their products and related modifications meet the highest professional standards possible.
  • Judgment: Maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment.
  • Management: Subscribe to and promote an ethical approach to the management of software development and maintenance.
  • Profession: Advance the integrity and reputation of the profession consistent with the public interest.
  • Colleagues: Be fair to and supportive of their colleagues.
  • Self: Participate in lifelong learning regarding the practice of their profession and promote an ethical approach to the practice of the profession.

The principles are further broken down into clauses in a longer version of the Code. In summary, the Code ensures that software engineers commit themselves to “making the analysis, specification, design, development, testing, and maintenance of software a beneficial and respected profession.

Why is software ethics important?

1. Benefit the public 

Having a strict code of ethics guarantees that software engineers will create products that benefit everyday people. Without ethics, a software engineer could disregard how their work affects the lives of others, or design something that is intentionally harmful. Software should be looked upon as a tool to help our society function more efficiently. Without ethics, software engineers could get off scot-free for participating in reckless behaviour and decision-making. 

2. Meet professional standards

Adhering to your own personal ethics isn’t enough. Professional standards governed by a code of ethics ensure that software engineers are able to justify their work. Rather than pursuing a goal without first thinking of its implications, employees in this field need to ask themselves a few ethical questions each time they embark on a new project. For example, a software engineer who is developing a new video game may ask themselves, “How can I make sure that the final product does not negatively impact a player’s quality of life?”. Having a code that meets professional standards also means that software engineers are part of a moral community of like-minded professionals and leaders with similar responsibilities. Remember, the influence of a good principal can never be erased! 

3. Provide high-quality software

Software powers our world. It enables the functionality of our banks, communication, power plants, and nearly every other modern-day system. Ethics make certain these systems use high-quality, reliable software that is beneficial and accessible for everyone. According to the Code, software engineers must aim to create quality products that meet specifications, pass appropriate tests, and don’t diminish quality of life, privacy, or harm the environment. 

How to implement software ethics?

We strive at Link Software to put ethics at the center of what we do. 

We may encounter some dilemmas sometimes. 

1. Algorithmic bias 

You need to remember that computers lack morality! Bias can unintentionally enter systems when it’s not taken into consideration. For example, Google was recently criticized for perpetuating systemic racism when it was discovered that their image processing technology couldn’t accurately represent black and brown skin tones in photos. When creating a product using existing data, software engineers need to be intentional about their work and ask themselves important questions like, “How was this information collected and what assumptions did the collector have?”. Companies and senior-level employees can also work to solve algorithmic bias by nurturing a culture that encourages employees to speak up if they believe a software feature is problematic. 

2. Personal data collection 

We all know that some software can profile users with a terrifying level of accuracy. One major ethical dilemma in software engineering is how data is collected and managed. Many businesses generate revenues by sharing user data unethically. Companies can combat malpractice by making it easy for engineers to come forward with concerns when necessary, without fear of repercussion. Software engineers should also be provided access to the context of each task so they develop a good understanding of how the software will be used. 

3. Weak security protection

Security isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Hackers can cause lasting damage to real people and companies. Sadly, organizations often prioritize quick development over security and take reactionary measures to address ongoing security challenges. Software engineers should address security during development and after code release, rather than focusing strictly on getting the product to market. Once the product has launched, companies need to continue to make security a top priority. 

4. Negative relationship between feature and impact

Just because you can implement a new feature doesn’t mean you should! Some software engineering teams spend too much time developing new features and updating product capabilities, and not enough time tailoring their existing features to make them safe and reliable. The sad truth is that ethics often take a backseat when this occurs. Businesses need to set the tone for the quality of their products and services and strive to reflect these priorities throughout a software’s lifecycle.