Ethics in the Provision and Use of IT for Business

Publication type: Report
07 January 2010

Tags: Technology, Employees

This report draws attention to the issues, dilemmas and challenges that are common when IT is used to achieve business initiatives. It provides guidance for all business managers on planning, implementing and evaluating the provision and use of IT so that ethical challenges are anticipated, and the organisation's ethical values and commitments are not compromised.

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This paper explores how doing the right thing and achieving outcomes that reflect responsible business practice can pose a challenge when IT is employed to realise a business objective, initiative or project.

Some of these challenges are specific to IT provision and use. While many may be a feature of any business function and practice (treatment of employees, customers and suppliers for example), it is in the unique context of IT provision and use that such business ethics issues are explored here. There are particular reasons why the use of IT in business poses significant challenges to doing the right thing and to achieving outcomes that reflect responsible business practice.

This report aims to:

  • draw the attention of senior business people to issues, dilemmas and challenges that are common in IT provision and use and which might compromise an organisation's ability to live up to its ethical values and commitments.
  • demystify issues associated with solving business problems using IT.
  • provide guidance on how to plan, implement and evaluate the use of IT so that ethical challenges are anticipated, and the organisation's ethical values are reinforced, or at least not contravened.

This paper is for anyone who believes that a goal of any business initiative, and the IT projects that support it, is to build relationships of trust as well as to deliver targets on time and on budget.

Such a goal necessitates business practice that is in line with a set of ethical values. It implies a concern to do the right thing, as well as doing things right.

This is not a report about computer ethics or IT ethics as such. IT ethics itself has become an established academic and professional field involving the questions raised generally by the IT revolution and its impact on society.1 Concerns here are limited to challenges posed by the provision and use of IT in business for business. Neither is this paper specifically targeted at IT professionals; its aim is not to be a handbook for the conduct of IT professionals.

The guidance in this paper is intended to assist business managers in any function who are considering using IT for a business objective. As such, the projects and initiatives discussed in this paper are primarily business projects with an IT element, although some are IT focussed projects.

Why does IT raise ethical challenges in business?

Applying information technology for business objectives bears particular characteristics that lend themselves to potential problems with ethical dimensions. These problems are discussed below.

1. IT is complex, the terminology often difficult to understand by anyone other than technical experts, and IT can be costly. 

  • The provision of the IT system (i.e. the planning, design, specification and procurement) can challenge the skills and practices of the business people involved. Any lack of understanding may be exploited by suppliers. They may misjudge the expertise and knowledge that others have, and as a result, projects might be more costly. Ultimately, it might mean that those who should be responsible are hindered in making sound ethical decisions.
  • Where technology hides operational processes, transparency in existing working procedures may be lost, which often results in unintended outcomes for users.
  • The technical terminology involved in IT planning and provision poses communication challenges for IT and non-IT staff alike collaborating to achieve a business objective. There can be a disconnect between business leaders and their technical functions. Misunderstandings may lead to unintended consequences, including ethical impacts.
  • IT may be considered by business people to be ethically neutral (or amoral2) as computers are not moral beings. They may not be familiar with the choices that IT professionals make and the consequences of those choices, for example about issues of accountability regarding how people use the technology or the manipulation of data that becomes possible.

2. IT brings change.

  • When new IT systems are being introduced, or changes made to existing systems, there is an opportunity for ethical lapses to arise. Once in place, processes and procedures may be disrupted and familiar contexts of work changed. There may be new pressures to cut corners and take integrity risks. New and unfamiliar ethical dilemmas may arise for which no guidance is available.
  • New opportunities to explore and exploit information can lead to poor ethical decision-making and behaviour if guidance to employees has not been provided or updated.
  • New IT systems, introduced to solve a business problem or realise a business opportunity, can reconfigure organisational structure. They can impact on corporate culture and they can mediate relationships with stakeholders. These changes in the business processes may be viewed as unfair by some.
  • The drive for innovation and to be ahead of competitors may lead to the use of untested IT - accompanied by a failure to consider its effects on people, and even on the effectiveness of the business.

3. IT is everywhere, yet often imperceptible.

  • The use and reach of IT in business is ubiquitous, thus potentially posing a wide range of problems with an ethical dimension.
  • The specific inter-dependencies of systems (technical and organisational) within an organisation can mean that responsibilities are unclear.
  • Media reports of delayed projects and escalating costs in IT projects are all too familiar. Against such a background, the perceived levels of risk inproviding a new information system can provide an environment for conflicting priorities among suppliers of IT and their customers which may lead to a compromise of ethical standards.
  • The users of IT or the receivers of data will most probably be geographically remote from the operator of the system or the sender of the data. This can mean that impacts are perceived as being in cyberspace, where ethical issues might be ignored or seem unreal and not physically manifest.

For these reasons, both the provision and use of IT may have implications for an organisation's continued ability to conduct its business in a way that is in line with the ethical standards it espouses.


In the world of IT and business change, things move so quickly and this speed can sometimes be achieved at the expense of quality. Time scales are set that can never be achieved, changes are planned that are clearly never going to work, and the approach taken to projects is sometimes quite obviously inappropriate or unethical.


Derrick Cameron (2008) Resignation - the last resort of the principled IT professional? BCS



Chapter 2: Issues in Provision and Use


Chapter 3: Good Practice


Appendix 1: Issues in the news 2008-2009


Appendix 2: Examples of commitments concerning IT in codes of business ethics


Appendix 3: Further resources


1 Mason, R.O., Mason, F.M. and Culnan M.J. (1995) Ethics of Information Management, Sage Publications. Also Kallman, E.A. andGrillo, J.P. (1996) Ethical Decision Making and Information Technology: An Introduction With Cases, McGraw-Hill, New York.

2 Richard T De George calls this “the myth of amoral Computing and Information Technology”, in De George, R. T. (2003): The Ethics of Information Technology and Business, Blackwell Publishing, MA USA