CS Lab Ethics Discussion Topics
by Don Hyatt and Randy Latimer
Note: Although we usually ask the students to discuss some topic
related to ethics and technology, occasionally we have the students respond to progress on their
research projects. As you will see, not every day has been an ethics discussion
but most of them have been along those lines.
general topics that Don Hyatt and Randy Latimer have discussed this school
year. Looking at online records it can be seen that Don was more thorough about recording
exactly what we discussed prior to 9/11. Since that time, records are not
as complete but maybe we can enhance this list as time goes on. Usually the discussion was based on a newspaper article
for the day, or some other publication of interest. Perhaps we can resurect
First Marking Period
The student government is proposing an "Honor Code" to encourage our students to be
honoable and to not cheat. Many universities have strong honor codes but
what is so bad about cheating?
Answer: People who cheat on tests may receive a good grade, but everyone else should
be concerned that such people have not learned essential material. Cheaters
often make serious mistakes later in life because they have not really learned
things they are supposed to know. Which people would worry
you the most if you discovered that they cheated through school and did not
have the proper education?
- A computer programmer who is working on critical parts of a computerized missile defense system.
- A surgeon who is operating on a friend or close relative who has had some
- An engineer who is designing buildings and bridges that you depend on
to be safe during storms, floods, and earthquakes.
- An airplane pilot who is making an emergency landing because of an
equipment malfunction on your plane.
Because of technology, records more easlily accessed and verifiable.
Danny Almonte, a talented young baseball player from the Bronx, was widely
honored for being the first boy in 44 years to throw a perfect game in the
2001 Little League World Series. However, officials later discovered
that Danny's father lied about his son's age and forged his birth certificate.
Danny was actually 14 years old and not 12, making him two years older than
the legal age limit for Little League. What do you consider
the most regrettable about this cheating incident?
Danny's athletic talent in baseball will always be clouded by the fact that he cheated.
- Danny's team members had to forfeit all of their victories and trophies even though they were not at fault. The team and the coach are now banned from competition.
- Danny and his father will probably be deported to the Dominican Republic since their visas have expired. They also face criminal charges for falsifying documents.
- The teams that lost because of Danny's pitching didn't really have a fair
chance. Some of them deserved to win but were denied that opportunity because
According to an article in the
LA Times (8/23/01), lobbyists for Microsoft
have been accused of writing letters to state officials, members of Congress
and the President in order to sway opinion on the Microsoft anti-trust case.
The letters appear to be written by concerned citizens, but apparently were
carefully orchestrated by Microsoft's Lobby or other organizations they
directly support, such as Citizens Against Government Waste.
When the first round of letters arrived this spring, the wording of each
one was exactly the same but the sigatures were different. However in a
second wave this summer, some officials received as many as 300 to 400
personal letters written in different fonts and on different stationery.
Although no two letters were identical in content, apparently key phrases,
sentences, and even whole paragraphs in multiple letters were exactly the
same, word for word, yet supposedly came from independent sources.
Even more astonishing was that investigators discovered that the some of
the people who "wrote" the letters were actually dead. Many of the return
addresses were invalid, giving addresses or even cities that didn't exist.
What do you think the most likely outcome of this incident will be? Here
are a few possibilities:
- Public opinion will backfire and people will be angered resulting in
very close scrutiny of Microsoft's actions in the future.
- Microsoft will claim that competitors have been using similar tactics to
attack their company and that this was just a slightly more sophisticated
- Microsoft will acknowledge that lobbyists may have over-stepped ethical
boundaries, but point out that their company did not directly sanction
such actions and should not be blamed.
- Politicians will be less likely to consider ANY grass-roots efforts from
"concerned citizens", assuming that a large swell of letters from their
constituents were probably mass produced by some phony support group.
The nation's largest job-search web site, Monster.com, collects and uses
information from people who are looking for employment. They have about
12 million resumes in their database right now. Even though this has been
an excellent way to seek high tech jobs, people are now becoming concerned
about privacy issues with respect to the information that this firm has
Which of the following would concern you the most?
- Even after you tell the company that you want to remove your resume
from their online search, your information might remain in their database
for an extended period of time and could be used inappropriately.
- With your name, address, and phone number online, you become more
susceptible to unwanted sales pitches, phone calls, and other forms of
- Your current employer might discover that you are looking for another
job and will be less likely to give you raises or promotions. The lack of
trust that could develop might make current working conditions uncomfortable.
- Although "identity theft" is a rare occurrence, posting ANY information
about yourself online makes you more prone to such a situation. An unethical
person could pretend to be you, and incur large debts in your name.
Identity theft where someone pretends to be you and destroys your credit
What kind of advantages might distributed computing via the Internet have in
removing terrorist targets for centers of commerce such as the World Trade
Center? What are some possible drawbacks?
To what extent should the government be able to check into communications and
information available on the Internet and telephone communications in order
to protect our citizens. Do you object to their invasion of your privacy if
if it means a safer country during times of war?
If a company has hired you to do computer work for them, what rights do
they have to monitor the actual work you do on company time. If you surf
the web for entertainment or answer private email, should you be penalized?
What if the company actually monitors every keystroke you type to see how fast
you develop programs or prove that you are not doing your work?
What do think the motivation is for writing computer virus programs? Are these
people targeting one operating system to try to make it less desirable, or are
they just deranged individuals who want to just cause others harm? What if an
unscrupulous company whose maarket was virus protection software was actually
creating new viruses to keep themselves in business?
Describe your senior research project proposal. (Not an ethics question)
How reliable is information that you find online? Recently it was discovered
that a medical site that was supposed to list mal-practice information about
doctors allowed the doctors to update this information about themselves. Doctors
with the worst records had apparently deleted damaging information about
their own histories. Would you trust a web search to find a reliable physician?
Statistics made public recently show that minority students and individuals from
from poor neighborhoods are less likely to get into Jefferson. The superintendent
has proposed a quota system for entrance to our school, but many community groups
are upset about this approach since a "blind" admission system was considered
fairer to all. What is your opinion on setting quotas for regional and ethnic
groups with respect to admission to our science magnet school?
Describe what you have accomplished in the first iteration of the program you
are working on for your senior research project.
In the recent issue of the Communications of the ACM, there was an interesting
article about the music industry and encryption. One of Jeffrerson's former
CS lab students was involved in breaking the encryption scheme used on CD's.
The challenge to break the code had been made publicly and so he and several
others took the challenge. Instead of taking the cash award offered by the
industry, he and his professors decided to publish their works in a journal
but this angered the music industry, and they were threatened with being sued
if they revealed the information. Congress had passed an act saying that it
was illegeal to attempt to knowingly attempt to break encryption schemes (DMCA).
The sudent and professors argued that such a law restricts academic freedom.
What is your opinion?
Our school has been working on an honor code, and some people feel that it
is too complex as a formal document. What kind of punishments should be
specified for cheating incidents? Are there different levels of abuse and
should the punishments reflect the degree of the offense?
How vulnerable do you think the Internet is to Cyber Terrorism? How much
havoc could be done to essential services? What is essential and waht is
just entertainment. If something really needs to be secure, can the communication
be via the net or should it be a separate network?
Our school system has imposed an Internet filter that was mandated by the School
Board. What are some of the plusses and minuses of an Internet filter? What
are the disadvantages of the most extreme filtering systems?
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting, or working
for a company from home?
Prior to the economic downturn in the high tech area, many of our former students
were very successful and were able to retire quite early in their careers. If
you were to be extremely successful financially and wanted to give something back
to humanity, what might you do for society? What would have the most lasting
effect on humanity?
The recent release of the Microsoft XP operating system has been criticized for
being too controlling and pervasive? What aspects, if any, are concern you?
What are some of the worst web design mistakes?
There has been much controversy at a local school where a student leader was
caught in cheating incident and a serious breech of ethics. Some people felt that
since the student was school leader, he should be held to higher standards and
be required to give up his school leadership position because of his actions.
Others disagreed since there were no rules staing that he must resign. Do you
think those in a position where they are role models should be held to higher
standards than others?
Companies are trying to use various technologies to recognize individuals who
might cause us harm. There was a case in Florida, however, where a person
was identified incorrectly as a bad person and was pursued by authorities.
How much relaince should we put on these artificial intelligence techniques
for surveillance, and are you concerned about "false positive" abuses?
This is the last day of the marking period, so describe the most significant
accomplishements you have made in your research.
Second Marking Period
In the Microsoft monopoly case, people complain that because they are bundling their
products with the operating system it requires that people use all of their products
and this restricts second party software solutions. Is this being a monopoly or is
it just smart business practice?
A recent article in the Washington Post said that because Jefferson is a Magnet
school, students are actually being hurt when applying to college because it is
harder for them to stand out with so much competition. Do you feel you have
been hurt by attending Jefferson or do you think the special technology programs
we are able to offer actuall will help you in the long run?
How responsible should a company be for the actions of their employees. If a
computer programmer steals code from a competitior and incorporates it into
the company product, should the just the employee be penalized or is it the
responsibility of the employer insead.
One of our students found that someone had made some unkind comments about him
on the Internet. It was not a school-based website but in an open forum that
was not monitored. What can be done about slandering people online? Who should
be held responsible, the person who makes the accusations or the site that
allows it to be posted?
Several major Internet sites have been criticized because they are removing
critical comments about the government and the war in Afghanistan, but comments
about the opposition are allowed to remain. These private companies say that
they do not monitor what is posted but react to complaints by users instead.
If a company is as big as Yahoo, should they be required to carry opposing views
or should they be able to do as they wish?
On November 27th, the Supreme Court will hear a case about a mother who was
angered that the Oklahoma school system allowed students to grade one another's
papers, and this was psychologically damaging to her children. There are concerns
that the high court could rule that all school work must be held in strict
confidentiality. How do you feel about peer review and assessment, and if this
is banned, how might actions at our school have to change?
A resume is not a ticket to get a job, but merely a way to get an interview
with a potential employer? What kid of things should go on your resume? Should
you "stretch the truth" to get an interview or do you think this could backfire?
What are your personal abilities and experiences that would make you marketable
in the high tech field right now?
Society will always be faced with the dilemma that we may be able to do
something with technology, but should we. Many people are concerned about
"Big Brother" scenarios such as automated traffic enforcement cameras that
issue tickets for speeding or running a traffic light without giving the
accused person a chance to question the incident. What are some areas where
we might ethically decide that research or technology applications may exceed
moral or ethical boundaries?
A number of large companies such as Enron and Excite AtHome have filed for bankruptcy
protection recently. What are some of the side effects of bankruptcy for small
investors, creditors, company officials, employees, and stockholders? Is bankruptcy
fair or is there some alternative?
Because so many factors in business are intertwined, sometimes a simple decision in
one area may have unpredictable results in another. For instance, when a company
downsizes to improve profits by laying off a number of inessential employees, what are
some possible side effects that could result? Will other employees who did not
lose their jobs start looking for work elsewhere? Which ones will be more likeley to
leave, the most capable or least capable? Will customers lose confidence
in the firm and decide to take their business elsewhere thus lowering profits
There has been some discussion about parasitic computing, or running a program on
someone's computer without their knowledge. Sometimes this is accomplished by just
accessing a website, and while logged in the the remote location uses a bit of
the persons computing power to do some benign calculations. Are there any ethical concerns about
using someone's processor without their knowledge even if it doesn't hurt their
computer or their response?
Teachers are often asked to write a number of recommendations for students
who want to attend various colleges. How should a teacher respond to a request
for a recommendation if the student has violated that teachers' trust in a
Here is a real life scenario that one of the teachers faced quite a few
The student system administrators who help run the school's computer
systems are put in a situation where they have additional responsibilities.
However, the teachers who work with the students need to be able to trust
to act in a mature and responsible manner. Over winter break, the
teacher in charge of the computer lab noticed an unusal computer
name related to school's domain, "beefcake.tjhsst.edu". Upon closer
investigation, he discovered that one of his student system administrators
had set up a new system on the network that was being used to download
pornography and copyrighted software while school was not in session.
The teacher came in the next available day, changed all the root
passwords on the computers and told the student that he was no longer
a system administrator. Two months later, the student approached the
teacher and asked him to write a college recommendation. The teacher
at first declined, but then was approached by a guidance counselor who
said that the student would not get into college unless his teacher
could write about the student's exceptional computer skills.
How should the teacher respond to this second request to write the college recommendation?
- The teacher should still refuse to write the recommendation.
If the student doesn't get into the college, the teacher might be
blamed if the recommendation is not good.
- The teacher should tell the college about this breech of trust and
not worry. The college will appreciate knowing what the student is
- The teacher should
write about the student's strengths only and not mention the incident to the
college. However, what would this do to the teacher's credibility with the college for
future recommendations should the college ever hear the truth?
- The teacher should tell the student and guidance counselor in advance what will
be said and let them decide.
In the Washington Post Business section today, there was an article by
Mike Musgrove about
video games titled
For the Fun of It: Game Developer Sid Meier Has His Priorities Straight.
Since we have been discussing ethics topics in
relation to computer science, what are you opinions
etical values related to video games? What are some of your favorite games
What in these games contributes to fun?
you've play for fun, and do they reinforce good or bad ethical values.
Not surprisingly, most favorite video games were based on unethical values
and no students could find any games that actually supported good ethical
- Quake - murder
- Grand Theft Auto - larceny
- Civilization - world domination
There have been a number of articles recently raegarding Microsoft's
settlement offer to resolve the antitrust case against the company.
On November 21, the Washington Post reported in an article titled
Microsoft May Donate To End Suits and
Microsoft Pushes for Settlement
that they had planned to
donate millions of dollars worth of refurbished computers as well
as copies of their software to school systems that could not afford
Many companies including the Apple Corporation
argued that this was not a fair settlement since all it did was
extend Microsoft's reach into the education market. Rivals claim
that the settlement does nothing more than punish the monopoly
by extending its reach into the only area where they do not already
have a monopoly. Apple currently holds 47% of the education market
but only 5% of the rest of the market share.
In today's Post, another article titled
Microsoft Revises Private-Lawsuit Offer
indicates that they plan to give the board who administers the
equipment and software purchase program more choice in deciding
on purchases for needy schools. What do you think is a fair
settlement in this case? Should we consider the 7 million
students in 14,000 low economic schools who will benefit from the
Microsoft settlement who could use computers,
or should we consider the companies who might be pushed out of
future markets as a result of this offer?
There is a great article in the Washington Post Business Section today
"Cause of Death: Mistrust".
It relates the downfall of the Enron corporation because investors
lost trust in the company due to some shady deals. The company had
been weakened due to losses it incurred from bad debts, but the real
difficulty came when customers and investors felt they couldn't trust
the company. Once trust is lost, it cannot be easily regained.
There is a great quote by one of the investors from Dynegy, a company
that pulled out of a financial deal that might have saved Enron from collapse.
Chairman and CEO of Dynegy, Chuck Watson said, "When people lose confidence
and they don't believe you
and they question your integrity, they question your character." When
that happens, "You're toast." which implies that you are finished in
the business world (and most other places too.)
Find some examples of what happens when people lose trust in a
company or individual.
Dr. Bernadine Healy was forced to resign from the Red Cross because she
breached the trust of those who donated to the Liberty Fund for 9/11
survivors. She wanted to keep some of the money for other Red Cross
activities but this was in violation of the original intentions of those
donations. The related article in the Washington Post was titled
It's Hard to Be Charitable About This Breach of Trust, (12/9/01).
- Representative Gary Condit was having trouble getting 3000
signatures to support his run for Congress again this next year.
- Both Clinton and Nixon when it was revealed they lied to the American
- Firestone Tires being responsible for auto wrecks
- Airline travel after lapses in security and customers' safety concerns
in wake of September 11th.
George O'Leary only lasted a few days as head coach for Notre Dame because
it was discovered that he falsified his resume. He had been a great coach
at Georgia Tech for many years and just accepted the position at Notre
Dame, but then resigned. However, many years before he claimed that he received
a varsity letter in football for three years at a college he only attended
for two years (and did't play football). He also claimed to have a
Master's degree from New York University, but that was entirely false too.
He had kept this information on his resume although it was clearly not true,
and that breach of trust has caused him the loss of a great job for
which he was othewise qualified.
In Tony Kornheiser's December 15th article in the Washington Post,
"You Get No Shot With a Bad Lie",
he points out that people falsify records for two reasons: to look better to
other people or to look better to themselves. However, lies made years
before may eventually catch up with you. As William Gildea pointed out in his
article that appeared the next day,
"At Notre Dame, They're Pining for the Ara Era",
he said... "the higher a person climbs in American life, or attempts to,
the closer the scrutiny." With O'Leary, the lies on his resume that he had
made 20 years before were still there, and when confronted with them he
did resign as head coach for Notre Dame.
At TJ in the early years, we had a similar situation that ended in a
most dramatic fashion. One of the Tech Lab teachers, a man who was hired
to run the TV Studio, had lied about his past experience on resume, but
that was not his only
ethical problem. He was caught stealing from the school. He apparently
was taking equipment from the labs and turning it in for cash at various
A pawn shop in Maryland checked out the serial number on one of the
computers and found that it was listed as stolen from Fairfax County
Public Schools. It was one he had taken from the Computer Systems lab.
They had the man's signature and had even had taken his picture at the
time of the
transaction. When all of the evidence was in hand, the police arrived at
TJ and hauled the teacher away in handcuffs. Later it was discovered that he
had many different resume versions on his computer, all of which were
We recently had a situation at Jefferson where students were suspected of
falsifying their activities list to Yale University. Yale had received an
anonymous call from someone saying that this had happened,
and asked the guidance department to verify activities for all the
applicants to their university.
One student out of the many who submitted applications to Yale
had indeed falsified the application. It is very unlikely that Yale
will accept the student at a later date either. However,
this lack of ethical behavior by one reflects on all of our students
as well as our school. Will Yale ever trust people from TJ?
Our school's reputation has been tarnished.
What are your opinions on resume inflation and how do you think
colleges feel about them? How we might be able to
combat such unethical behavior at Jefferson to make sure our school
and students are not tarnished by similar situations in the future?
Third Marking Period
Fourth Marking Period