The180·The 180

Creating a code of ethics for coders

Longtime coder Bill Sourour says sometimes the work of programmers is used for unethical practices - so coders are often the last line of defence against wrong-doing of their employers. For that reason, he says coders should create a code of conduct.
The work of coders is so ubiquitous that longtime coder Bill Sourour thinks the profession should start to organize, and create a standard code of ethics. (Shutterstock)

The work of software programmers, and coders, is all around us.

It's in the phones we rarely put down, in the sales systems we use in restaurants, stores and gas stations, in our cars, and sometimes in less obvious, more deceitful places.

This is why Bill Sourour thinks that the programmers of code need their own code of ethics.

Unfortunately because of the ubiquity of software...there are people with slightly nefarious intentions and to have those intentions fulfilled through code, they're going to talk to a software developer and ask them to do something on the wrong side of ethics.- Bill Sourour

Bill started to think about this last year when he wrote a blog post titled, The code I'm still ashamed of. The post told the story of his first programming job in which he wrote the code for a website that promoted a pharmaceutical drug to young women through the guise of a quiz:  the women would answer questions about their symptoms, and no matter what they said the company's drug would be recommended.

"When I was asked to do it, nothing about that seemed super odd, it didn't bother me. I just chalked it up to...ok that's marketing."

Sourour says that programmers are often the last line of defence against the wrong-doing of their employers. (Credit: Getty Images)

When he found out that the drug had serious side effects and had potentially caused a young woman to commit suicide, he left the job.

"Ultimately I came to the conclusion that, put in that situation again, I would have refused to write that code. It made me realize that the work that we do can have some pretty serious consequences and we have to be aware of that. We have to understand what we are being asked and we have to understand as best we can, what the ultimate use is."

"It made me realize that the work that we do can have some pretty serious consequences and we have to be aware of that. We have to understand what we are being asked and we have to understand as best we can, what the ultimate use is." - Bill Sourour

But how would a code of ethics work?

Sourour says the first step would be to organize the profession.

Bill Sourour says that programmers need a code of ethics for the profession. (BIll Sourour)

"The model is other professions, like engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants who have professional associations that have codes of ethics and they have the protection of that association. So for example, if you're a doctor or a lawyer and you are asked to do something that violates the professional code of ethics, you have standing to refuse without being worried about repercussions."

It basically puts everyone on the same page; if you want quality professional coders, you have to understand that they are going to abide by this code of ethics and if you're going to call yourself a professional developer, then you're going to abide by it as well.- Bill Sourour

Although he acknowledges that regulation of the profession would not be an easy task.

"The models are out there but it is a tricky thing to put into practice and to do for real."

According to Sourour, the most universal and applicable tenet would be, "Never write code that knowingly betrays the user's trust."

Legal codes of ethics, medical codes of ethics, they don't stop every single scenario, but I think they are preventative and they help, and that's the best we can do.- Bill Sourour


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