Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 25–42 | Cite as

Accountability in a computerized society

  • Helen Nissenbaum


This essay warns of eroding accountability in computerized societies. It argues that assumptions about computing and features of situations in which computers are produced create barriers to accountability. Drawing on philosophical analyses of moral blame and responsibility, four barriers are identified: 1) the problem of many hands, 2) the problem of bugs, 3) blaming the computer, and 4) software ownership without liability. The paper concludes with ideas on how to reverse this trend.

Key Words

accountability bugs computer ethics liability moral responsibility standard of care 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. [1]
    Borning A (1987) Computer System Reliability and Nuclear War.Communications of the ACM 30, 2: 112–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. [2]
    Leveson N (1986) Software Safety: Why, What, and How.Computing Surveys 18, 2: 125–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. [3]
    Leveson N, and Turner C (1993) An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents.Computer 26, 7: 18–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. [4]
    Littlewood B and Strigini L (1992) The Risks of Software.Scientific American, November: 62–75.Google Scholar
  5. [5]
    Neumann P G. (monthly column) Inside Risks.Communications of the ACM.Google Scholar
  6. [6]
    Parnas D, Schouwen J and Kwan S P (1990) Evaluation of Safety-Critical Software.Communications of the ACM 33, 6: 636–648.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. [7]
    Feinberg, J (1985) Sua Culpa, In: Johnson D G and Snapper J, eds.Ethical Issues in the Use of Computers. Wadsworth, Belmont.Google Scholar
  8. [8]
    Thompson D (1987)Political Ethics and Public Office. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  9. [9]
    De George R (1991) Ethical Responsibilities of Engineers in Large Organizations: The Pinto Case, In: May L and Hoffman S, eds.Collective Responsibility. Rowman and Littlefield: 151–166.Google Scholar
  10. [10]
    Feinberg J. (1970) Collective Responsibility. In Feinberg J, ed.Doing and Deserving, Princeton University Press, Princeton.Google Scholar
  11. [11]
    Ladd J. (1989) Computers and Moral Responsibility: A Framework for an Ethical Analysis. In Gould C, ed.The Information Web: Ethical and Social Implications of Computer Networking. Westview Press, Boulder.Google Scholar
  12. [12]
    Thompson D (1987) The Moral Responsibility of Many Hands. In:Political Ethics and Public Office, Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 46–60.Google Scholar
  13. [13]
    Velasquez M (1991) Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible for Anything They Do. In: May L and Hoffman S, eds.Collective Responsibility. Rowman and Littlefield: 111–131.Google Scholar
  14. [14]
    Johnson D G and Mulvey J M (1993)Computer Decisions: Ethical Issues of Responsibility and Bias. Statistics and Operations Research Series, Princeton University, SOR-93-11.Google Scholar
  15. [15]
    Weizenbaum J (1972) On the Impact of the Computer on Society.Science 176, 12: 609–614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. [16]
    Jacky J (1989)Safety-Critical Computing: Hazards, Practices, Standards and Regulations (Unpublished Manuscript). University of Washington.Google Scholar
  17. [17]
    Corbato F J (1991) On Building Systems That Will Fail.Communications of the ACM 34, 9: 73–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. [18]
    Smith, B C (1985)The Limits of Correctness. Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, CSLI-85-35.Google Scholar
  19. [19]
    McCullough D (1972)The Great Bridge. Simon & Schuster, New York.Google Scholar
  20. [20]
    Turkle, Sherry (1984)The Second Self. Simon & Schuster, New York.Google Scholar
  21. [21]
    Friedman B and Millett L (1995) “It’s the computer’s fault—reasoning about computers as moral agents.” Paper presented at CHI ’95, New York.Google Scholar
  22. [22]
    Fitzgerald S (1992) Hospital Computer Predicts Patients’ Chance of Survival.The Miami Herald, Sunday, July 19.Google Scholar
  23. [23]
    Snapper J W (1985) Responsibility for Computer-Based Errors.Metaphilosophy 16: 289–295.Google Scholar
  24. [24]
    Friedman B and Kahn P H (1992) Human Agency and Responsible Computing: Implications for Computer System Design.Journal of System Software 17, January: 7–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. [25]
    Nissenbaum H. Should I Copy My Neighbor’s Software? In: Johnson D G and Nissenbaum H (1995)Computers, Ethics, and Social Values. Prentice-Hall, Englewood.Google Scholar
  26. [26]
    Samuelson P (1992)Adapting Intellectual Property Law to New Technologies: A Case Study on Computer Programs. National Research Council Report.Google Scholar
  27. [27]
    Stallman R M (1987) The GNU Manifesto.GNU Emacs Manual: 175–84.Google Scholar
  28. [28]
    Samuelson P (1993) Liability for Defective Information.Communications of the ACM 36, 1: 21–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. [29]
    Fried J P (1993) Maximum Terms for Two Youths in Red Hook Murder.New York Times, July 7: 3.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Opragen Publications 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helen Nissenbaum
    • 1
  1. 1.University Center for Human ValuesPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

Personalised recommendations