Computer law and ethics

There are laws in place to govern the use of computers and the internet. However, legal issues are not always straightforward. Technology and the internet are evolving rapidly and this throws up new ethical and legal dilemmas.

Legal and ethical questions affect many areas of computing including privacy, sharing, hacking and the environment.

Privacy

What information can we consider to be private and who owns data? For example, photographs that are uploaded to social networks often legally become the property of the website.

At what stage can private information like this be used and for what purposes?

Sharing

There are piracy laws protecting the distribution of films and other media. It is illegal to rip a copyrighted DVD or CD and distribute it online. However, peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks and hosting websites mean it is easy to share files with anyone in the world.

At which point does sharing a film with others become piracy?

Hacking

The term 'hacking' can have a positive or negative meaning. It refers to any activity which makes unusual use of, or attempts to break, a computer system. Hacking can be used for negative purposes such as looking for weaknesses in systems to access and steal private data, but it can also be used for positive purposes such as:

  • creatively exploring new ways of using a program or computer
  • working around bugs in code
  • exposing security risks in software and websites, and warning the general public
  • testing the security of a system
  • a 'hack day' - where people get together to explore new technologies

Hackers who attempt to do good through hacking are called 'white hats' but those that carry out criminal activity are called 'black hats'.

BBC games developer Simon Lumb explains how the BBC protects games from hackers