Ethical Issues in Computer Science with Laurie Smith King, Professor of Computer Science

By Maura Sullivan Hill

Students examine the ethical issues that arise as a result of increasing use of computers, and the responsibilities of those who work with computers, both as computer science professionals and end users. How do computers challenge traditional ethical and philosophical concepts? This discussion-based course involves active student participation. Topics discussed include technical issues in computer science and traditional ethical topics, such as philosophical theories, privacy, intellectual property rights, professionalism, security, accountability, liability, hacking and viruses.

Course Objectives

The course has three main goals: to give a fuller and richer understanding of the social impact of computers and the ethical issues in human activities affected by computers; to prepare the student for living in a computerized world and working as a professional in the computing field; and to improve presentation, debating and writing skills.


Three analysis/discussion papers, two exams, a presentation with a partner and a “Computer Ethics in the News” presentation, during which the student summarizes a technological news story that has an ethical component and leads class discussion

Required Texts

Computer Ethics, 4th edition, by Deborah G. Johnson and Keith Miller

CyberEthics, Morality and Law in Cyberspace, 5th edition, by Richard Spinello

On the Day HCM Visited Class

After King asked how the students were faring at the end of a busy midterm week, class opened with a “Computer Ethics in the News” presentation. A student summarized an article about a major corporation that was hacked prior to a new product release, but elected to release the new product despite uncertainty about whether its systems were still compromised. With the chairs arranged in a circle, the classroom setup lent itself to a comfortable atmosphere, and an animated discussion about whether the company made the correct decision began immediately. After several minutes of discussion, King introduced the main topic of the day: two assigned readings about whether law enforcement and government agencies should have universal access to all data. For the remainder of the hour and a half class, the students discussed why the computer scientist authors—rather than an author with a law background—brought the most valuable perspective, why having universal access could make a system more vulnerable overall and why increased complexity leaves more opportunities for failure in a system. 

Professor Bio

King earned her Ph.D. in computer science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She specializes in programming languages implementation and hardware/software co-design and collaborates with the Reconfigurable and GPU (graphics processing unit) Computing Lab at Northeastern University in Boston, where she is a visiting scientist. She joined the Holy Cross faculty in 1998 and has taught courses ranging from introductory computer science to data mining to program language design and implementation. King is active in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and, in 2012, was the co-chair for ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) Technical Symposium. Her interest in computer ethics began in 1994, when she attended a workshop on professional and ethical issues in computing at a National Science Foundation (NSF) summer program for college faculty. This led to her involvement as co-principal investigator on an NSF-funded project from 2000 to 2004, which aimed to integrate ethics into computer science curriculum. She first developed this ethics course at Holy Cross in 1999, and it became a required course in the computer science major in 2004. Currently, King serves as the ACM SIGCAS (Special Interest Group on Computers and Society) representative to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers initiative on cyberethics. In 2016, she will begin her term as co-editor in chief of ACM’s Inroads magazine.

Professor Quote

At many colleges and universities, ethics for computer science majors is only a sliver of the curriculum, and is often covered by having the students take courses outside the department. Not so at Holy Cross. King explains: “We are used to teaching technical material and students intuitively grasp that they need to know it to succeed in the field—but we also need to model the need to think about ethical issues that arise in computing. One of the reasons we require this course in the computer science major is to convey that ethical considerations fundamentally intertwine with computing technology and for students to see their computer science professors value this ethical dimension. When facing ethical issues in computing, a tendency is to passively adopt a form of technological determinism and say ‘Oh, that’s just how the technology is.’ But it is not the technology—we design it, we use it, we can change it and we need to take the ethical issues seriously.”

Student Quote

Allison Rancourt ’17 of West Stewartstown, N.H., who completed a summer internship at the National Security Agency (NSA), says “In my other technical classes, I am asked to problem solve in ways that, for example, would require me to develop a program. In this class, I am also asked to problem solve, but with the knowledge that I may not come to an exact answer to the ethical problem. This poses a problem for people like me who enjoy arriving at an exact solution, but it just adds to the challenge of the course. Computer science ethics is not about arriving at an answer, it is about the path you take to get there and the thoughts you are able to develop along the way.”  ■