Bernie Madoff and the Need For Ethics in Computer Science

Have you seen a show or movie about a huge heist lately? The “Mission Impossible” type of movie or perhaps the TV show “Leverage?” One of the things you will notice is that there is always one computer hacker on the team these days. To steal something large and valuable seems to require computer access. Yesterday I can across a post by Mark Cuban titled Breaking Down Bernie Madoff. The MadoffPonzi Scheme” is a theft or con game of the highest magnitude. Cuban points out that is almost sure had some programmers who wrote the software that was used to track everything going on. He’s probably right.

Computer fraud and theft is, unfortunately, not just the stuff of fiction and the movies – its real. The line from Spiderman is “with great power comes great responsibility” and computer knowledge fits that completely today. Some 15 years ago when I was working on my masters in CS an ethics course was a requirement. It made sense and makes even more today. We don’t have courses in ethics in high schools, let alone middle schools, that often but I think we can and should have some conversations about it. Many students see using computers as a game. They see it as a world where the normal rules do not apply. We need to teach them that the normal rules do apply.

Online activities have offline consequences. Stealing online is still stealing. And people with computer skills have an obligation to “say no” when asked to do illegal and/or unethical things. “Just following orders” doesn’t work for much of anything and it shouldn’t. Do we prepare students with a sound philosophic base for making ethical decisions? Perhaps we should be thinking about how that fits into the curriculum.

Note: Other posts I have written relating to ethics may be found at

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