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Lack of ethics education for computer programmers shocks expert

Society is becoming more dependent on the creations of computer coders but New Zealand's future technology masterminds are barely taught to think about ethics.

Computer coders will face more ethical dilemmas as people's trust in technology strengthens, but one expert is shocked that IT students are not being taught to uphold morals.

Most of New Zealand's computer science university degrees do not include papers or courses that cover ethics.

Auckland University computer science associate professor Ian Watson, said this was a problem because the mostly 20-something-year-old, caucasian males creating apps were making race and gender divides worse.

Their narrow world view meant they did not consider the impact their digital creations could have on society, Watson said.

[Computer scientists] have become extremely arrogant and rather naive and are completely overlooking what their code might end up doing."

Watson said Auckland University's computer science course did not teach its students about the ethical implications their future jobs and creations could have on society, but that had to change.

Ethics was a problem for all software developers and their educators needed to consider teaching it, he said.

The University of Otago's computer science degree required students studying a data communications paper to write one essay outlining the solutions to an ethical data issue.

Its lecturer Richard O'Keefe said he never struggled to find real life ethical issues to use as examples.

He had used malware, election poll hacking and private information leaking so far. This year his lecture would cover the implications of Facebook and Google's user tailored content.

O'Keefe​ said he wished he had more time to delve into ethical dilemmas with his students but there was not enough space in the curriculum.

"There is a huge amount to know … There is only so many hours in the week and there is always this pressure to include the latest and greatest new thing."

He said he was surprised most universities did not cover ethics in their computer science course. He said they could be leaving the responsibility to employers.

He said he pointed his students to the IT Professionals New Zealand (ITP) code of ethics so they could refer to it if they ever encountered such a problem in their career.

"Really all we have got time to do when we teach ethics and law is say, 'these things happen, here is a thing that tells you what to do, go and study it'."

Signing up to the ITP was voluntary and many computer programmers did not do it, O'Keefe​ said.

The code states members must act with good faith, integrity, competence, skill and strive for a community focus, informed consent and continuous development.

The ethical dilemmas computer programmers and coders would face in their job were not new and the answers were mostly common sense, O'Keefe​ said.

He said it was obvious to students that leaking someone's financial details online was wrong.

But he worried that most of his students would become workers not managers and if their future boss told them to do something unethical, they would do it.

O'Keefe​ said he taught his students that the key to being ethical was to be modest about their skills and to check their work.

"It boils down to noticing what you are doing and thinking about it."

He said the computer programming industry faced huge security issues but programmers were typically "innocent optimists".

"They think about how to make something work, not what will go wrong."

Stanford computer science PhD graduate Emma Pierson said in a Wired article that she was not taught how to answer the ethical questions she confronted throughout her career.

"Professors need to scare their students, to make them feel they have been given the skills not just to get rich but to wreck lives."


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