ACM’s Code of Ethics Offers Updated Guidelines for Computing Professionals


The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) has released an update to its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct geared at computing professionals. The update was done “to address the significant advances in computing technology and the degree [to which] these technologies are integrated into our daily lives,” explained ACM members Catherine Flick and Michael Kirkpatrick, writing in Reddit.

This marks the first update to the Code, which the ACM maintains “expresses the conscience of the profession,” since 1992. The goal is to ensure it “reflects the experiences, values and aspirations of computing professionals around the world,’’ Flick and Kirkpatrick said.

The Code was written to guide computing professionals’ ethical conduct and includes anyone using computing technology “in an impactful way.” It also serves as a basis for remediation when violations occur. The Code contains principles developed as statements of responsibility in the belief that “the public good is always the primary consideration.”

Ethical Decision Making

In its entirety, the ACM says the Code “is concerned with how fundamental ethical principles apply to a computing professional’s conduct. The Code is not an algorithm for solving ethical problems; rather it serves as a basis for ethical decision-making.”

It is divided into four sections: General Ethical Principles; Professional Responsibilities; Professional Leadership Principles; and Compliance with the Code.

The General Ethical Principles section discusses the role of a computer professional, saying they should contribute to society, with an acknowledgement “that all people are stakeholders in computing.” This section addresses the “obligation” of computing professionals to use their skills for the benefit of society.

“An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing, including threats to health, safety, personal security, and privacy,’’ the code advises. “When the interests of multiple groups conflict, the needs of those less advantaged should be given increased attention and priority.”

Computing professionals should perform high quality work and maintain professional confidence. They should also take into consideration diversity and social responsibility in their efforts and engage in pro bono or volunteer work benefitting the public good, the ACM recommends.

They should also try to avoid harm, in areas including “unjustified physical or mental injury, unjustified destruction or disclosure of information, and unjustified damage to property, reputation, and the environment.” To minimize the possibility of unintentionally or indirectly hurting others, computing professionals are advised to follow “generally accepted best practices unless there is a compelling ethical reason to do otherwise.” They should also carefully consider the consequences of “data aggregation and emergent properties of systems,” the ACM advises.

Computing professionals should also be honest and trustworthy and transparent. They should “provide full disclosure of all pertinent system capabilities, limitations, and potential problems to the appropriate parties. Making deliberately false or misleading claims, fabricating or falsifying data, offering or accepting bribes, and other dishonest conduct are violations of the Code,” the ACM stresses. This also applies to honesty about their qualifications and any limitations in their ability to complete a task. They should also be fair and not discriminate against others, and “credit the creators of ideas, inventions, work and artifacts, and respect copyrights, patents, trade secrets, license agreements, and other methods of protecting authors’ works.”

With a nod to the ability of technology to collect, monitor and disseminate personal information, another call to action under the Ethical Principles section is respecting the privacy, rights and responsibilities associated with collecting and using personal information. Use of personal information should only be done for “legitimate ends and without violating the rights of individuals and groups,” the Code states.

A Position of Trust

Noting that computing professionals “are in a position of trust,” they have “a special responsibility to provide objective, credible evaluations and testimony to employers, employees, clients, users, and the public.” Consequently, the Code says these individuals “should strive to be perceptive, thorough, and objective when evaluating, recommending, and presenting system descriptions and alternatives.”

The Code also stresses that “extraordinary care should be taken to identify and mitigate potential risks in machine learning systems.” Other mandates in the Professional Responsibilities section include maintaining high standards of competence, conduct and ethical practice. Computing professionals should also only perform work in areas in which they are competent. They should also design and implement systems that are “robustly and usably secure,” the Code states.

The Professional Leadership Principles section, as the name suggests, deals with the attributes of a leader. These principles deal with the importance of ensuring computing work is done, again, with the public good in mind, and having procedures and attitudes oriented toward the welfare of society. Doing so, the Code suggests, will “reduce harm to the public and raise awareness of the influence of technology in our lives.”

Leaders should also enhance the quality of work life, articulate, apply and support the Code’s principles and create opportunities for people to grow as professionals. They should use care when changing or discontinuing support for systems/features, and help users understand “that timely replacement of inappropriate or outdated features or entire systems may be needed.”

Lastly, the ACM urges compliance to the Code’s principles and to treat violations “as inconsistent with membership in the ACM.”