The Ethics of Coding and Corporate Ethics

Recent reporting in the Washington Post and the Huffington Post has drawn attention to Absher, an e-government portal and general services software for the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry that allows male guardians of women in Saudi Arabia to track and control the movement of those women, and to the fact that Google and Apple offer Absher for downloading through their app stores.

Although Absher, according to the Post, “allows Saudi citizens to process a host of personal status issues such as getting a passport, a birth certificate or vehicle registration,” human rights advocates have said that it also facilitates Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship by restricting travel by women:

It remains illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to travel without permission from a so-called male guardian. Under this system of laws and practices, women in the kingdom need the approval of a “guardian,” typically a male relative, for a range of decisions and actions, including marriage, employment with private companies, certain types of health care and release from prison, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Using Absher, Saudi men can restrict the travel of Saudi women by first allowing or disallowing them to leave the country, and the men can also limit the dates and places women are permitted to travel.

Business Insider’s coverage of Absher included screenshots of the app that show the male guardian can input a woman’s name and passport number, specify the number and duration of trips the woman may take, and cancel any travel authorizations for that woman.  In addition, Insider reported that the male guardian

can also enable an automatic SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in. . . . [A woman] would have little chance of escaping from within Saudi Arabia, where borders are integrated with the Absher alert system.

Any attempt to leave would be blocked as soon as her passport was checked at an airport. Even if she were to make it out, she would leave a digital trail making her easy to find.

Various human-rights activists and Members of Congress have decried Absher and called on Google and Apple to stop offering it through their app stores.  The creation of Absher, however, itself raises a fundamental ethical question: does Absher, or any software whose primary purpose or necessary effect is to violate human rights, violate any software-engineering or general corporate codes of ethics?

The general answer for both appears to be no.  With regard to the software-engineering industry, in 1997 two of the leading professional organizations in that field, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, jointly promulgated a Software Engineering Code of Ethics in 1997.  That Code is organized around eight generic keyword principles (product, public, judgment, client and employer, management, profession, colleagues, self), each of which contains statements of aspiration, expectation, and demand for software engineers.  Consistent with that framework, however, the Code does not directly proscribe the writing, installation, or use of code that directly violate criminal or human-rights law.  As a commentary on the Code explained:

The code is not a simple ethical algorithm that generates ethical decisions. In some situations standards may  conflict  with  each  other  or  with  standards  from other  sources.  These  situations  require  the  software engineer  to  use  ethical  judgment  to  act  in  a  manner that  is  most  consistent  with  the  spirit  of  the  code  of ethics, given the circumstances.

Similarly, corporate codes of ethics, even of information-technology companies, do not appear to prohibit in specific terms the writing, distribution, installation, or use of code that could violate criminal or human-rights laws.  For  example, Microsoft has an elaborate and integrated set of ethical policies and standards.  These include a general Standards of Business Conduct that articulates the company’s commitment “to respecting and promoting human rights to ensure that technology plays a positive role across the globe.”  In particular, its Global Human Rights Statement states that Microsoft strives to ensure that our technology, business activities, and employment practices “are respectful of the human rights of all individuals and empower every person to achieve more, consistent with the relevant human rights” defined in several United Nations treaties that include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Neither of those corporate documents, however, specifies that the company opposes and prohibits the creation, installation, distribution, or use of code that would violate the terms of such international conventions or related laws.

What, then, should professional organizations and companies do about applications such as Absher?  Certainly organizations with broad membership from the software-engineering community, like the ACM and IEEE, should revisit their codes of ethics and add language barring the creation, distribution, installation, or use of software that violate specific criminal or human-rights laws.

Because it may take substantial time for revision of such industry-wide codes, in the short term individual companies should review their codes of ethics and decide whether to amend those codes directly or issue internal directives that bar the creation, distribution, installation, or use of such software by company employees.  In addition, given the widespread acceptance of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) in corporate functions, companies can prohibit the installation or use of software like Absher, whose primary purpose and necessary effect is to deny well-defined human rights, on company-owned or BYOD devices.

The debate over Absher is certainly part of a much larger public debate about various practices that are asserted to contravene human-rights norms, ranging from artificial intelligence to uses of big data to government surveillance programs.  Each of those topics is broad and complex enough for reasonable minds to debate the proper scope of restriction or prohibition on those practices.

But some software, as conceived and written, is so inherently directed at the suppression of fundamental freedoms, such as the right to travel, that public- and private-sector organizations should treat it as a clearcut violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as national constitutions and statutes.  If companies can issue codes of conduct that prohibit conduct such as anticompetitive practices or bribery that violate the law, they can make clear that those prohibitions extend to software that necessarily violates human-rights laws.

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