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The Petraeus scandal and computer ethics

Mark Gibbs | Nov. 21, 2012
Last week Gen. David Petraeus, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, resigned in response to what has turned out to be a much bigger scandal than it first appeared.

This brings me to the whole idea of computer ethics education. My old friend Winn Schwartau, who has also been known to pen a piece or two for this august organ, told me a story about how his wife, Sherra, who is also in the computer security business, was contacted by a woman looking for a computer ethics course.

The woman's seventh-grade son had got into trouble at school for hacking a shared computer and altering grades. Part of the punishment set by the school when they discovered what he'd done was to complete a computer ethics course. The problem was, the mother said, that she couldn't find such a thing.

Sherra talked to Winn and when they couldn't find anything like that either, they, in a paroxysm of creativity, decided to update a book Winn had created more than a decade ago titled "Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids (and Teachers and Parents without a Clue)." Back in 2001, with help of corporate sponsors, Winn distributed something like 125,000 copies of that book.

Now Winn's thinking has become somewhat more ambitious: He wants to give away 1 million copies of the new book!


The new version, "Cyber Safety and Ethics and Stuff (for Kids, Teens, Parents and Teachers)" is being launched on Kickstarter and will be "a high quality, full color, glossy, easy to read and share book, designed to help kids, families and schools, churches and youth groups, learn about the challenges of online security, safety and privacy."

I think this is a great idea. The issues of ethical behavior when using a computer are misunderstood by most people, even those inside the computer industry.

Winn's new book will cover all of the hot button issues of online safety and ethics, including hacking, sexting, bullying, theft, privacy, pornography, scams and phishing, plagiarism and safety but, and here's the interesting angle, it will not be prescriptive.

A key concept behind the book is to ask questions that make readers think about the various topics, provide insight into the issues involved, and then let them draw their own conclusions. I think this is a great idea because, while a few of the topics have simple right or wrong or yes or no answers, the majority are situationally dependent and hard and fast rules won't really answer the question. Understanding the background and dimensions of issues will make it possible for readers who haven't run up against these situations to figure out what the ethical issues are.

Winn's Kickstarter project is looking for initial funding of $60,000 to be pledged by Wednesday, Jan. 2, at 9:02 a.m. PST, which will be used to "fulfill all [backers] rewards and get copies to every member of Congress, every State education director, leaders in Washington, key media and online groups that support kid and family cyber safety."


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