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Ethics and Trust October 20, 2013

Posted by lorenmurphy2 in Security.

In the article, Reflections on Trusting Trust, Thompson criticizes how the media portrays computer hackers. He believes that although the media portrays the hackers as Whiz Kids, “the acts performed by these kids are vandalism at best and probably trespass and theft at worst.” Thompson even believes that breaking into a computer system should be treated the same as breaking into a house and even drunk driving. From the outside, many people would think these comparisons are unrealistic; however, Thompson’s viewpoint does raise the question of moral standards. Should people break into a computer system just because there are flaws within the system that allows them too?

According to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), there are a set of ethics and professional conduct rules that people should follow. When a person breaks into a system, they are violating three rules: avoid harm to others, respect the privacy of others, and access computing and communication resources only when authorized to do so.

The first broken rule is avoiding harm to others. By breaking into a system, the hacker is harming the general public and the company who created the system. Not only will the integrity of the company be damaged, but company employees must spend valuable time going through the system to check and/or correct any new viruses, altered files, and missing information.  The general public is also affected because the system could have stored sensitive data such as medical records or financial information. This leads to the second broken rule: respect the privacy of others.  If the hacker was able to get access to this information then it could lead to identity thief or numerous other crimes. The last broken rule is accessing computing and communication resources only when authorized to do so. Since the hacker did not have permission to the system, they are trespassing and therefore in violation of the code.

Although the hackers are at fault for breaking the code of ethics, one could argue that the people who created the system also broke some rules by allowing the system to get hacked. According to the code of ethics, as computing professionals we are required to give a comprehensive and thorough evaluation of a computer system including an analysis of possible risks.  Were the system loop holes not accurately assessed and corrected before release of the system? In addition, as computing professionals, we are required to improve the public’s understanding of computing and its consequences. This topic relates back to Thompson’s article because he was upset that the media portrays hackers as heroes/whiz kids instead of properly punishing them. However, this shows that the media has not been properly educated by computing professionals about the negative consequences of computer hacking and how it harms the general public.

I think both the hackers as well as the computing professionals violated the code of ethics. I think when the hacker is a “whiz kid” the professionals are most at fault because kids do not know about a code of ethics or fully realize the consequences of their actions. This was even seen by Thompson in the article when he stated” I have watched kids testifying before Congress. It is clear that they are completely unaware of the seriousness of their acts. There is obviously a cultural gap.” I personally think this cultural gap is due to professionals not educating the public.

  1. Thompson, Ken. “Reflections of Trusting Trust.” Communications of the ACM. Volume 27. Aug. 1984.
  2. “ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.” Association for Computing Machinery.  Oct. 1992.


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