Accountability in a computerized society


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.

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Correspondence to Helen Nissenbaum PhD.

Additional information

Several people have contributed generously to this work. Michael Davis, Deborah G. Johnson, Arthur Kuflik, Pamela Samuelson, Debra Satz, Richard De George, Larry May, and Dennis Thompson read drafts and made invaluable suggestions. Reviewers forScience and Engineering Ethics offered thorough and challenging commentary. An earlier version of the paper was presented at The American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division Meeting, December 1993, where audience comments and questions led to clarification of several key issues.

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Nissenbaum, H. Accountability in a computerized society. Sci Eng Ethics 2, 25–42 (1996).

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Key Words

  • accountability
  • bugs
  • computer ethics
  • liability
  • moral responsibility
  • standard of care