The ethical crisis in software development

I’ve been following the news on the scandal surrounding Volkswagen with keen interest. It appears that at the heart of the matter is a piece of software, written for or by Volkswagen, that forms part of their engine management system. As a software professional of more than 30 years standing, it angers me that an apparently reputable organisation (of which I was a customer of for many years) thinks that it is acceptable to misuse code in this way. While there’s clearly a need for those in charge of VW to take responsibility, there is also a need for the individual software professionals involved to examine their conduct. So I’ve been pleased to see that the British Computer Society CEO, Paul Fletcher, has published a blog article on this topic today.

Software is no longer confined to large computers in purpose-built rooms – it’s everywhere

In it, Paul calls for all technologists to work to a strong professional code of conduct. Naturally, the BCS has a code of conduct that it expects its members to conform to. However, in my opinion, it’s not as strongly worded or as visible as it needs to be, particularly when you compare it to those of other professional bodies, such as the British Psychological Society’s code of ethics and conduct. Professional qualifications and membership really mean something in psychology – but despite rising membership numbers and the BCS’s best efforts, the equivalent professional qualifications and membership for software professionals carry a fraction of the weight that they ought to.

Sadly, even if the code of conduct was stronger and more visible, the BCS would need far more clout than it has today to promote it more widely. Even more importantly, a government-backed regulatory framework, to ensure that the BCS can support its members put under undue pressure to act unethically, is absent.

I believe we should be just as interested in ensuring that people who write and implement software are as well-regulated and ethically aware as professional psychologists. After all, unethical behaviour in software development can have potentially devastating effects on the environment, health, wealth … in fact, on any aspect of society touched by software.

Which, as society is becoming increasingly aware, is all of it.

The best thing that could come out of the VW scandal is that we all start to pay far more attention to ensuring that technologists, especially software developers, understand their ethical duty to society and that they have the necessary professional and regulatory backing to be able to stand up to rogue employers.

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