Research Focus - Ethical Behavior of Engineers
In a long-term research endeavor we have been investigating the ethical behavior of software- and system engineers. Against the background of real ethical problems in engineering organizations as well as an earlier interview study of questionable privacy attitudes of engineers, we wanted to know about what is really happening in engineering organizations.
In particular, we have been focusing on the two values of privacy and security in engineering. Privacy and security are a challenge in today’s business world where personal data markets, corporate deadlines and a lag of perfectionism frame the context in which engineers need to work. Besides these organizational and market challenges, each engineer has his or her specific view on the importance of these values.
We first conducted an interview study with senior system engineers from some of the biggest IT corporations and research centers to see how they embrace responsibility for ethical system design (Article 1). The results of our in-depth interview study point to a lack of perceived responsibility, control and autonomy and to a struggle with the legal world.
And we then conducted a larger-scale quantitative study with 124 engineers based on the Theory of Planned Behavior and Jonas’ Principle of Responsibility (Article 2). We find that many engineers find the two values important, but do not enjoy working on them. We also find that many struggle with the organizational environment. They face a lack of time and autonomy that is necessary for building ethical systems, even at this basic level. Organizations’ privacy and security norms are often too weak or even oppose value-based design, putting engineers in conflict with their organizations. Our data indicate that it is largely engineers’ individually perceived responsibility as well as a few character traits that make a positive difference.