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Computer ethics in the workplace

There are few businesses where employees are not required to spend at least some amount of time using the business’ computers, phones, tablets, or other devices. The cost of buying and maintaining ICT equipment can be a huge cost to the business, particularly in keeping proprietary information secure. But making sure the system is safe is only one half of the equation. The other is making sure all employees use ICTs to a high professional standard.

Inappropriate use of computers can put the company at risk ethically, legally, and financially.

The concept of computer ethics stretches as far back as the 1940s but in modern workplaces, there are exponentially more considerations in responsible computing than ever before.

Personal internet use at work

It is common for many employees to check social media or do a spot of online shopping while at work. For a long time, many companies blocked access to external websites to prevent wasted downtime. The hours staff were collectively spending were seen as a huge financial black hole. More recently however, it’s a trend that is changing.

A study from the University of Melbourne found people who spend time at work ‘browsing for pleasure’ have increase concentration levels and are more productive than those who don’t. The study found 70 per cent of people who use the internet at work browse for pleasure at some point and are more productive by up to 9 per cent.

However, there were some important caveats to the findings. Mainly – everything in moderation. The study lead, Dr Brent Coker, said short and unobtrusive breaks are key and allow the mind to rest. This reinvigorates concentration. Longer or more frequent browsing may have the reverse effect.

Privacy, safety and data security

The company has a legal and moral obligation to protect sensitive corporate data. This may be customer or staff records, contracts, and sensitive commercial-in-confidence information. There are some key considerations to keeping this safe:

  • Establish clear policies for data management from the point of recruitment, throughout tenure, and even post-employment. This should be regularly reviewed and refresher training provided for staff. This may include restricting off-site access, preventing the use of portable storage devices in work computers, or limiting use of the open internet.
  • Restrict access. This may be through individual logins for employees, ‘need-to-know’ access to certain files or computer drives, or by tracking activity on each device on the company network. Ensure staff never have a need to share login credentials.
  • Keep all software licences current and use reputable digital products. Many businesses will use licensed programs or platforms such as web-based workforce management, human resources and payroll software. These can hold information on business intelligence, payroll processing, and personal employee data collected during onboarding of new staff. Knowing the data is safe is the first step in an ethical computing policy.
  • Where computer use is tracked by the business, employees should be made aware and clearly advised on what is and isn’t considered ethical use of the systems.

The 10 Commandments (of computer ethics)

In 1992, as the use of personal computers began to rapidly expand, the Computer Ethics Institute created the 10 Commandments of Computer Ethics. These came following consultation with the Internet Advisory Board and were designed to be a set of basic rules to guide how computers are used in personal and professional life.


  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people’s computer work.
  3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people’s computer files.
  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid (without permission).
  7. Thou shalt not use other people’s computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.
  8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people’s intellectual output.
  9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.
  10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.


While the Commandments don’t provide a total solution, they do offer a strong foundation upon which your company can build policy around the use of computers in the workplace.

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