Ethics in Military and Civilian Software Development
© 1999 Sam Nitzberg http://www.iamsam.com
Abstract: The modern world is in fact a world driven
by information. One sensible view in which to divide computing disciplines
is into aspects which are dominated by either civilian or military-based
industry. In either of these realms, there are increasingly demanding
requirements for computing systems to meet increasingly complex
and highly information-dependent information processing objectives.
The quality with which systems are developed for either civilian
or military purposes has systemic, infrastructure-wide consequences.
A number of the ethical considerations present in developing military
and civilian software are similar, and are examined in this paper.
There are a number of very close similarities between "Civilian"
industry and "military-based" industry. There are some
differences; while military budgets are generally shrinking, commercial
industry is enjoying a very prosperous time. The author does not
make any claims of being a "dove," and any discussion
of whether this funding trend is fundamentally good or bad is beyond
the scope of this paper.
Some issues pertinent to both types of industry are illustrated
in the following table:
Secrets must be maintained
Trade secrets are protected by laws to protect trade secrets,
as well as other laws to specifically protect corporations
from industrial espionage.
Military and state secrets are protected by assorted governmental
(e.g. federal) and organizational (e.g. Army or DOD - Department
of Defense) laws and regulations.
Industrial espionage is a modern-day fact, especially in
all high-technology enterprises. The global competitive market
exacerbates competitive pressures and threats due to industrial
Industrial espionage may be launched by either private corporations,
or corporations acting on behalf and in concert with a foreign
High-technology military / intelligence information may be
sought by either agents of foreign powers, or organizations
(including corporations) working on their behalf.
The world is a dangerous place
Executives in civilian industry have been targeted for kidnapping
by organized / unorganized crime enterprises.
Civilians and Defense / Intelligence / Defense industry employees
may be targeted by foreign intelligence services.
Employees may sell corporate secrets.
Defense industry workers may abuse their access of material
in order to make it available to intelligence services.
It is interesting to note that computer models both reflect and
impact the real world. Simulations are used to model traffic flow,
stock market and business situations, and the effects of nuclear
devices being designed. As the results of these simulations are
realized and effected, their impacts are made very clear and real.
II Nature of the Beast
Software product developers must face certain challenges. Although
a great many applications being currently developed have theoretic
foundations which date back decades, very often, poor implementation
and practices are used, resulting in buggy, if not dangerously flawed
software products. The very nature of military and civilian computing
systems and platforms has historically been very distinct, but modern
weapons systems are increasingly being built upon conventional software
products, ill suited in many ways to the demands of the modern warfighting
The Patriot missile system which failed to successfully track the
Iraqi Scud missile which killed twenty eight American Soldiers during
the gulf conflict may have failed to perform as desired due to a
software problem [Littlewood]. A very real example of the real-life
consequences to poor software development practices in civilian
systems may be explored through an example of a computer-controlled
x-ray medical diagnostic machine. Two cancer patients were in fact
killed as a direct result of software errors in computer-controlled
X-ray machines [Gotterbarn1].
Errors which exist due to poor or erroneously documented requirements
or specifications would allow such a system to dispense lethal doses
of radiation through no actual malfunction of the unit itself. On
the other hand, syntactic errors in programmer code could compel
the machine to apply lethal doses, as well. Curiously, errors in
the requirements, program specifications, or code could actually,
coincidentally, still permit proper operation - although the likelihood
of this phenomenon occurring in fielded systems is quite low. Similar
issues exist in military systems. Flaws in systems requirements,
specifications, or program code can have very severe effects - including
mission failures. Again, erroneous requirements or program specifications
can result in a wide range of failures, even resulting in fratricidal
engagements, as can errors in the program code itself. Traditionally,
software complexity has been viewed as the source of errors in systems.
At least in theory, defect-free software can be produced [Littlewood].
III DUAL-USE Technologies and the Millennium Bug
Dual use technologies are hardware and software appliances (strictly
speaking, it also includes many biological and chemical agents),
which may be used in ostensibly traditional commercial or "civilian"
use, but, which may also be used to improve a nation’s warfighting
or intelligence capability. Many technologies fall into such categories.
Advanced computer systems may be used for pharmaceuticals research,
or may be applied in the development of nuclear weapons; GPS (Global
Positioning Systems) technologies may be used to assist mountain
climbers, or to land warheads on target. The list of what constitutes
dual-use technologies is a long one. The Internet itself, a long-term
result and ancestor of work performed under the auspices of DARPA
(the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) may
itself be viewed as a "dual-use" technology. The Global
Positioning system (GPS) was developed by the US military in order
to better effect its many missions. GPS can be used to effectively
guide and provide navigational support to military vessels, combat
aircraft, covert action teams, and missile systems. What was not
predicted when GPS technologies were being developed was how GPS
would eventually be incorporated into civilian aircraft systems,
automobiles, personal GPS systems which plug into computers equipped
with mapping software, and personal handheld GPS units for hikers
or other recreational use. It is not necessarily always possible
to work on technologies and understand what their ultimate use will
be. After all, the birth of computing was nestled in military technologies
The "Year 2,000 Problem," also commonly referred to as
the Y2K problem actually refers to a great number of problems which
will affect computers, most typically when their clocks roll-over
from the last moment of 1999 to their first moment of the year 2,000,
causing unpredictable system behavior. Actually, the problem is
caused by methods used to efficiently represent dates and file markers
on computing and embedded systems [Jager, Boutin, Comerford, Lefkon].
More dates than just Jan 1, 2000 are criticalities; one example
is the arrival of the year 10,000 for systems using four digits
to represent the date. A great number of systems which were built
to support both mission-critical military and civilian purpose systems
suffer from the Y2K problem [Boutin].
The Civilian Information Infrastructure is presently being analyzed
and corrected to address the Year 2000 problem. As the time remaining
decreases, the problem actually becomes more difficult to fix -
adding personnel to the problem does not necessarily render the
fundamental problem easier to solve. According to Ed Yourdon (a
noted Software Engineer), just adding programmers to fix problems
as the Year 2000 approaches these problems do not scale up well
as time shrinks; trying to add more programmers is analogous to
trying to make a baby more quickly by impregnating nine women and
expecting a baby in one month. Naturally, any discussion considering
the practicality, or indeed, the morality behind actually making
manifest such conjecture, is beyond the scope of this paper.
Some perceive the costs associated with the "Millennium Bug"
as being quite dire - "If you knew what the experts know, you’d
be buying guns too" and see the potential for a near total
collapse of civilization [Wired]. The author would refer to these
proposed situations of failing power grids, communication systems,
air traffic systems, and virtually all necessary computing functions
as the "new nightfall" scenario. As if fears of an impending
social collapse is not a serious enough concern for ostensibly a
simple programming problem with a simple cause, the military has
similar problems. According to a NSA (National Security Agency)
representative, ‘The DOD’s Y2k conversion effort is a national security
interest… All information detailing these information systems and
the progress being made toward their conversions is considered to
be highly sensitive.’ [FCW]
Due to the security issues which have arisen, the DIST (Defense
Integrated Support Tool Database) containing information on Y2K
fixes has been placed under security restrictions, which has restricted
who may access this information further. On behalf of the ASD/C3I
(Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control,
Communications, and Intelligence), the NSA has performed a security
analysis on the DIST database and determined that the security measures
in place were insufficient to protect the data in its purview.
The DOD has been cited as falling behind other governmental organizations
in fixing its Year 2000 problems, and at the time of this writing,
it seems to lack a seamless method by which personnel requiring
access to Y2K information to obtain it.[FCW] One DOD official has
characterized the Pentagon’s addressing of Y2K issues as grossly
A presumably not atypical timeline for nations investigating and
repairing their Y2K-vulnerable systems follows[FCW]:
ASD/C3I identifies need to collect data on legacy/migration
DOD begins using DIST to collect data on DOD Year 2000 conversions
ASD/C3I memo tells DOD heads that "registration of information
systems in DIST is mandatory"
ASD/C3 identifies DIST as the "central, authoritative
database for tracking the resolution of Y2K-related problems"
ASD/C3I states aggregate of DIST data "could result
in serious damage to national security"
In the absence of information to the contrary, it would seem fair
to presume that this problem is not isolated to the United States
or American military computing platforms. Many countries and organizations,
including NATO utilize sophisticated computing tools and platforms
to accomplish their missions, and they must wrestle with similar
problems. The effectiveness with which these issues are addressed
may significantly impact on nations’ security postures.
John Hamre, the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense informed
the United States Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon does
not believe the Y2K problem will directly result in an accidental
nuclear exchange. In order to mitigate the risk of accidental nuclear
exchanges related to Year 2,000 issues, the Pentagon will share
traditionally restricted information with other, less Y2K prepared
countries, regarding the nature of American nuclear and missile
early warning systems[FCW2]. Mr. Hamre has also indicated that Hackers
are expected to take advantage of any confusion caused by the Y2K
crisis towards their ends of infiltrating both military and civilian
systems [FCW2]. Fortunately, Mr. Hamre has also indicated that the
Defense Department ‘went into hyperdrive’ with its Y2K work, and
all computer systems necessary for national defense will be ready
for the millenial roll-over [APP2].
Some amazing considerations regarding the scope and breadth of
the Year 2000 problem are that on the small-scale, the developers
of Y2K affected system understood the temporal constraints under
which they would function, that customers of complex systems were
generally informed of the consequences and their systems specifications,
and that, in the large picture, with the multitudes of stand-alone
and interacting systems, no one really knows precisely what will
happen when the clocks do in fact roll-over. Considering how simply
the Y2K problem could have been remedied on a system-by system basis
at its source, this represents a fundamental failing in the software
Whether persons in the software development industries are members
of a profession or are merely engaged in an occupation is a common
subject of debate. The licensing of software professionals is considered
by some as a possible remedy to all poor practice and incompetence
in the industry, and has been cited as a mechanism to answer the
call to "protect us from their incompetence." [Gotterbarn2]
Certainly, without some standard measures or guidelines, no approved
standard for competence can exist, and therefore, no malpractice
or negligence could exist, either. Whether software development
is seen as a profession or occupation, certainly, more professionalism
A brief survey of professions, occupations, and associated licensing
Duties Include/May Include
Barbers / Hairdressers
Cutting and Styling of hair
Applying of dyes to hair
Use of proper hygiene
Cutting and Trimming of nails.
Grooming of nails
Maintaining proper sanitization of equipment
Licenses (in New Jersey, USA) are awarded following the successful
passing of a one hundred question test, to be taken every
two years to maintain licensing. Regulations are vital to
minimize the risk of the spread of infection. [APP]
Design and construction of bridges, roadways, industrial
buildings and complexes, military complexes and transit systems,
Regular medical testing.
Mandatory (Generally) where lawful, e.g. The Netherlands,
United States (Nevada, outside the Las Vegas City Limits)
Design and construction of:
Medical diagnostic equipment,
Medical dosing systems <eg.
Computer-Controlled IV drips>
Air Traffic Control Systems,
Strategic nuclear weapon control systems,
Command and Control Systems,
Software components of anti-aircraft/missile systems, e.g.
Aeronautic fly-by-wire systems, such as those used in the
Space Shuttle, Stealth fighter and bomber aircraft, and civilian
Automotive computer control systems
Banking and Financial systems
Implementation of all items listed above for Software Engineers.
The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection
has divided its work into five sectors based on commonalities amongst
included industries. As defined, these sectors are:
- Information and Communications
- Banking and Finance
- Energy, Including Electrical Power, Oil and Gas
- Physical Distribution
- Vital Human Services
The commission studied these sectors, their vulnerabilities, and
approaches to the necessary solutions. [PCCIP]. While these sectors,
taken together, can be viewed as necessary to the general well-being
of the United Stated (and for that matter, and "first world"
nation), these sectors are outlined so broadly so as to include
almost any computerized contrivance in this domain.
One telling indicator of the quality of work is the degree to which
a firm will stand behind and warrantee its wares. The software industry
is not very well known for its warrantees, but is much more famous
for its legal disclaimers absolving software firms for any and all
liability for its products. One such unfortunate and sweeping disclaimer
Cosmotronic Software Unlimited Inc. does not
warrant the functions contained in the program will meet your
requirements or that the operation of the program will be uninterrupted
However, Cosmotronic Software Unlimited Inc.
warrants the diskette(s) on which the program is furnished to
be of black color and square shape under normal use for a period
of ninety (90) days from the date of purchase
Note: In no event will Cosmotronic Software
Unlimited Inc. or its distributors and their dealers be liable
to you for any damages, including any lost profit, lost savings,
lost patience or other incidental or consequential damage.
We don't claim Interactive EasyFlow is good
for anything - if you think it is, great, but it's up to you
to decide. If Interactive EasyFlow doesn't work: tough. If you
lose a million because Interactive EasyFlow messes up, it's
you that's out of the million, not us. If you don't like this
disclaimer: tough. We reserve the right to do the absolute minimum
provided by law, up to and including nothing.
This is basically the same disclaimer that
comes with all software packages, but ours is in plain English
and theirs is in legalese.
We didn't really want to include a disclaimer
at all, but our lawyers insisted. We tried to ignore them, but
they threatened us with the shark attack at which point we relented.45
Another extraordinary aspect of software marketing
is the fact that the user generally pays for software updates.
In other words, even if the product is faulty or needs amendment,
the user pays the software supplier to provide more correct
One common myth in computing is that there are no standards for
producing software code. Quite to the contrary, there are a number
of standards and methods not only for producing high-quality software
products, but for software testing methodologies as well [Roetzheim,
Freedman, Musa]. The unfortunate reality, however, is that there
are defacto software disclaimers, and they tend to look very much
like the specimen above.
A common thread running through most of the issues which must be
addressed to mitigate needless damage in either civilian or military
environs appears to be the simple attempt for organizations to maintain
some degree of foresight in how they develop and deploy their systems.
With due care and the proper use of software development methodologies
and a critical eye for detail, virtually every qualitative problem
addressed above may be addressed.
Job descriptions for software professionals typically include lists
of skills required to hire an individual for any given position,
as well as a certain minimal number of years of experience or use
of each skill. Naturally, such corporate or military job descriptions
for open positions also may include credentials which are required
to fill a position; for example, the prospective holder of an available
position might be required to possess a "Microsoft Certified
Engineer," credential, or a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Ph.D.
(Doctorate in Philosophy) degree. While such credentials may reflect
a certain basic knowledge or sophistication, they do not necessarily
demonstrate in any material way that a candidate will produce quality
work on any safety or mission - critical application.
"Ultimately, though, as professionals with particular
roles and responsibilities, carrying out practical tasks the
ramifications of which are often profoundly unclear, the sorts
of guidance that many normative ethical theories provide us
also depends on our social knowledge of what it is that we are
doing, on our understandings of the possible impacts of the
projects we undertake, and on our ability to integrate abstract
ethical theories with the (apparently) more practical decisions
of the workplace. Just as no code of ethics guarantees ethical
behaviour, no normative ethics can compel assent or assure its
own appropriate application." [Rooksby’]
Critically important elements, however, are often absent from software
professionals’ resumes, and seldom appear either as prerequisites
to performing needed software engineering work, or as vitally important
areas in which job holders are to be trained. Such oft-neglected
areas include computing security, software testing, and the consequences
of "mission failures."
Virtually all commercial and military applications are built upon
"closed" operating systems or applications. There are
traditional methods of security analysis which allow security decisions
to be based on the likelihood of certain events being weighed, as
well as their potential costs [Amoroso]. The use of such "closed"
systems defy such analysis and are therefore used without any quantifiable
understanding of the implicit risks.
Software testing is considered by many in the computing industry
as an annoyance, and a hurdle to overcome in developing a product,
prior to its release. Professionals responsible for designing, implementing,
and performing system tests may not have a background or familiarity
in more advanced software testing methods, and the quality and accuracy
of software tests may be seriously jeopardized as a result.
Most of the challenges facing either the current civilian or military
software developer are not necessarily totally new. While the technologies
and mechanisms specific to any specific application may be unique,
what is of increasing importance and consequence is that software
developers have an underlying humanistic philosophy and context
in which they perform their tasks. The fundamentally sticky problem
in software development has been – and continues to be that developers
must understand both the nature of their work and the consequences
of their potential failures and take steps to ensure that their
projects lead to successful long-term deployment.
Amoroso, Ed , Fundamentals of Computer Security Technology, PTR
Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1994, p. 17-29
APP, Asbury Park Press, Ask The Experts: Trouble Shooter, Nov.
6, p. B7, 1998.
APP2, Asbury Park Press, System said safe for 2000, The Associated
Press, Washington, 15 Jan 1995, p. A-15.
Boutin, Paul, The Bugs in Your Future, Wired, January, 1999, p.
Comerford, Richard, and Perry, Tekla, Brooding on the Year 2000,
IEEE Spectrum, June 1998, p. 68-73.
Roetzheim, William H., Developing Software to Government Standards,
1991, Prentice-Hall, Inc., NJ
Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing,
2nd Ed., Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, The MIT Press Cambridge,
Massachusetts, London, England, 1994.
FCW, Federal Computer Week, May ## 1998, Page 1, "NSA concerns
could hamper DOD Y2K fix,"
By Bob Brewin, Heather Harreld, and Daniel Verton
FCW2, Federal Computer Week, June 8, 1998, Page 1, "U.S. to
share Y2K Nuclear Data," By Bob Brewind and Heather Harreld.
Freedman, Daniel P. and Weinberg, Gerald M., Handbook of walkthroughs,
inspections, and technical reviews: evaluating programs, projects,
and products, Dorset Publishing Co, 1990, NY, NY
Gotterbarn1, Donald Gotterbarn, Informatics and Professional Responsibility,
Gotterbarn2, Donald Gotterbarn, Computer Practitioners: Professionals
or Hired Guns, http://www-cs.etsu.edu/gotterbarn/ArtLP1.htm
Jager, Peter de, Y2K: So Many Bugs … So Little Time, Scientific
American, January 1999, p. 88-93.
Lefkon, Dick, and Payne, Bill, Making Embedded Systems Year 2000
Compliant, IEEE Spectrum, June 1998, p. 74-79.
Littlewood, Bev, and Stringini, Lorenzo, The Risks of Software,
Scientific American, November, 1992, p. 62.
Musa, Iannino, Okumoto, Software Reliability: Measurement, Prediction,
Application, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1987.
Nitzberg, Improving Computing Security During the Development of
DOD Computerized Weapons Platforms, National Information Systems
Security Conference, Crystal City, VA, 1998.
Nitzberg, Information Warfare: Advancing the Art of War -- The
Computer as Agent of Destruction, Work in Progress.
PCCIP, The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection
Rooksby, Emma Rooksby, Posting on Computeremail@example.com,
October 29 10:20:27 PM, 1998.
Winkler, Ira , "Corporate Espionage," Industrial Espionage,
Wired, Kevin Poulsen, The Y2K Solution: Run for Your Life!!, August,
1998, Tagline from mailer page.