Ethical impacts of digital technology on wider society

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Ethical impacts


Legal impacts


Environmental impacts


Issues of privacy



Syllabus content

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Explain the current ethical, legal and environmental impacts and risks of digital technology on society. Where data privacy issues arise these should be considered.



Exam questions will be taken from the following areas:

  • cyber security
  • mobile technologies
  • wireless networking
  • cloud storage
  • theft of computer code
  • issues around copyright of algorithms
  • cracking
  • hacking
  • wearable technologies
  • computer based implants.

Students will be expected to understand and explain the general principles behind the issues rather than have detailed knowledge on specific issues.

Students should be aware that ordinary citizens normally value their privacy and may not like it when governments or security services have too much access.

Students should be aware that governments and security services often argue that they cannot keep their citizens safe from terrorism and other attacks unless they have access to private data.

Computer law and ethics

There are laws in place to govern the use of computers and the internet. However, legal issues are not always straightforward. Technology and the internet are evolving rapidly and this throws up new ethical and legal dilemmas.

Legal and ethical questions affect many areas of computing including privacy, sharing, hacking and the environment.


What information can we consider to be private and who owns data? For example, photographs that are uploaded to social networks often legally become the property of the website. (more ...)

At what stage can private information like this be used and for what purposes?


There are piracy laws protecting the distribution of films and other media. It is illegal to rip a copyrighted DVD or CD and distribute it online. However, peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks and hosting websites mean it is easy to share files with anyone in the world.

At which point does sharing a film with others become piracy? (more ...)


The term 'hacking' can have a positive or negative meaning. It refers to any activity which makes unusual use of, or attempts to break, a computer system. Hacking can be used for negative purposes such as looking for weaknesses in systems to access and steal private data, but it can also be used for positive purposes such as:

  • creatively exploring new ways of using a program or computer
  • working around bugs in code
  • exposing security risks in software and websites, and warning the general public
  • testing the security of a system
  • a 'hack day' - where people get together to explore new technologies

Hackers who attempt to do good through hacking are called 'white hats' but those that carry out criminal activity are called 'black hats'.

Data protection

Computer systems store lots of personal details, and personal data can be very valuable. This data needs to be protected and only used in the right way. The Data Protection Act (DPA) sets out principles that govern:

  • who can access data
  • the accuracy and validity of data
  • selling data
  • removal of data

Breaches of data protection are often in the news. For example, NHS Surrey was fined £200,000 for selling a computer that contained patients' personal records without first destroying the data on the hard drive.

Sharing data online

Whilst using the internet, users often upload information such as birthdays, passwords and banking details. As we use browsers and web applications, we create a record about our interests.

When we use personalised websites requiring logins, such as social media sites, we often add data about ourselves. Whenever we sign up to these sites we are agreeing to share a certain amount of personal data with the provider.

Information like this can be valuable to companies, eg advertising companies spend a lot of money seeking better ways to target adverts at the right users. Being able to see information such as your gender, date of birth and buying habits can be very useful for marketing purposes.

Tracking online activity

IP addresses

A person's online activity can be tracked through their IP address. Like a postal address, an IP address identifies a computer and its physical location on the network.

The IP address is allocated to the network card of a machine by an internet service provider (ISP). An IP address does not always give a geographic location. A mobile phone might be anywhere in the world, but its IP address on a 3G or 4G network will still be traceable.

Computers are assigned an IP address, which can be used by ISPs to track internet activity

All online activity can be tracked using an IP address. This is a method used to detect criminals on the internet and can be used to trace malicious comments made online.

Proxy servers

IP addresses can be masked by using a proxy server. Anyone can use a proxy server. Many are set up by criminal gangs to entice people to download software with viruses, or to enter personal details about themselves.

They can also be used legitimately, eg by businesses to mask their internal company network.

Computer misuse

As the use and importance of computer systems in society has increased, the opportunities to misuse them have also increased. In the UK there is a legal framework that governs the use of computers.

Cyberbullying and trolling

The ease of communication that comes with social networking sites, email and mobile phones means that it is also easier to be unpleasant to other people.

Cyberbullying involves abuse of another person using threats, insults and hurtful remarks and messages over the internet. There have been numerous reports of people who have been driven to suicide by persistent cyberbullying.

Internet trolls post messages and comments that try to evoke an emotional response from other people. BBC presenter Richard Bacon and other celebrities have spoken about being victims of trolls.

The law

The Computer Misuse Act makes it an offence to:

  • access computer material without permission, eg looking at someone else's files
  • access computer material without permission and with intent to commit criminal offences, eg hacking into your bank's computer and increasing the money in your own account
  • alter computer data without permission, eg writing a virus to destroy someone else's data

The digital divide

A society which is dependent on technology can create inequality. The gap between those who have access to the latest technology and those who do not is called the 'digital divide'.

The digital divide is a global issue as well as a national issue. In the UK it is mostly due to availability of technology and network coverage. Some of the main causes of the digital divide in the UK are:

  • Money - people need money to access the internet and buy the latest devices, such as computers, smartphones and tablets.
  • Location - access to network coverage and high-speed broadband can vary greatly depending on where you live. Most large towns and cities have good network coverage and access, but rural areas can have limited or no coverage. Without these connections, the internet can be slow or non-existent.
  • IT literacy - knowing how to use technology empowers people to make the most of it. People who don't know how to use computers and the internet do not have the opportunities that IT-literate people do.
  • Internet access - the internet provides many opportunities for people who want to access online shopping, banking and job adverts. Students with internet access at home can research or revise with online help. Many universities and schools offer courses online. Social networking helps people make connections and stay in touch.

The global divide

There are different levels of IT access, infrastructure and skills across the world. For example, South Korea has some of the fastest broadband speeds in the world and it is widely accessible, but the opposite is true of Myanmar (Burma).

There are a number of projects that aim to increase access to the internet and technology around the world such as the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project which aims to provide affordable, modern technology to all children in developing countries.

Computers and the environment

Technology has had an impact on the environment that is both positive and negative. The use of computers affects the environment in different ways, such as energy consumption, technological waste, and the impact of remote working.


There are some benefits to the introduction of technology on the environment:

  • using email and working electronically means that less printing is required, and so less paper is used
  • using systems like FaceTimeSkype and video conferences can reduce the need for people to travel to meet each other, and so less fuel is used
  • people can work from home - which reduces commuting (less fuel is used) and means that less office space is needed


However, there are also some drawbacks. These include:

  • Technology consumes energy. Computers require electricity, and most smartphones and tablets require recharging after just a few hours of use. Tablets and mobile phones use less energy than desktops and laptops as the hand-held devices use flash memory instead of hard drives and RISC CPUs instead of CISC CPUs.
  • Technological waste - also known as e-waste - sometimes contains poisonous chemicals and can be an environmental hazard.

In the UK, the average lifespan of an electronic device is two years. It is often easier to buy a new device and discard the old one than to maintain or upgrade an old device. If the item isn't recycled or resold, it will end up in a landfill site. Sometimes electrical items are sent to countries which have less strict laws about recycling. For example, in Ghana there have been reports of highly-toxic dumping grounds for old technology.

Key facts about electrical waste in landfill and the resulting hazards

IP, patents and copyright

Innovations and creative work that belong to a person or company are their intellectual property (IP). Anyone who creates an original piece of work usually wants to be recognised for their work and to be able to make money from it.

Copyright and patents can be used to protect the IP in softwarehardware and computer devices.


You can register ownership of an invention or new process and be given a patent. This can stop rivals from copying the idea for a set number of years.

Patents can apply to many different aspects of a device. With smartphones, patents apply to the user interface, the design of the software and each physical component inside the device. As components get smaller, each individual part of a new product is usually patented separately.

Smartphones are often at the centre of patent wars as there are many patents involved in a device. Companies are not keen to share profits. They are likely to sue each other if they can prove that their IP has been infringed.


From the moment you create an original piece of work, you become the legal copyright holder.

Copyright gives the creators of media the rights to control how media is used and distributed. Music, books, video and software can all be covered by copyright. Copying material that is subject to copyright without permission is illegal.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licences make it easier and legal to share data online.

CC licences help copyright owners share their work while keeping the copyright. They allow the copyright owner to say exactly what other people can do with it. For example, a CC licence might say that other people can copy and distribute the copyright owner's work if they give them credit.

There are a number of CC licences. The four licences in this table are commonly used.

Licence Description
Attribution It can be copied, modified, distributed, displayed and performed but the copyright owner must be given credit.
Non-commercial It can be copied, modified, distributed and displayed but no profit can be made from it.
No derivative works It can be copied, distributed, displayed and performed but cannot be modified.
Share-alike It can be modified and distributed but must be covered by an identical licence.


The unauthorised use of another person’s work is known as piracy.

Graphic illustrating piracy of software

Software piracy

Software piracy is any attempt to break the licence terms of a piece of software. This includes downloading and using a program without paying for it, as well as buying, selling or giving away illegitimate copies of a game or any other piece of software. It could mean extracting code from a program, or modifying it without permission in order to do something that the developers did not wish you to do.

When you buy software, music or films legally, copyright law forbids you from:

  • giving a copy to a friend
  • making a copy and then selling it
  • using the software on a network (unless the licence allows it, eg it is a business licence)
  • renting the software without the permission of the copyright holder

The practice of copying software is a serious problem in some countries. Copying music, films and software illegally means that there is less money available to pay the writers, developers and artists.

Some people argue that the incentive to produce new songs, films, television shows and games disappears as a result of piracy.

3.1 Fundamentals of algorithms

3.2 Programming

3.3 Fundamentals of data representation

3.4 Computer systems

3.5 Fundamentals of computer networks

3.6 Fundamentals of cyber security

3.7 Ethical, legal and environmental impacts of digital technology on wider society, including issues of privacy

3.8 Aspects of software development

Glossary and other links

Glossary of computing terms.

AQA 8520: The 2016 syllabus

General content


Ethical impacts

Ethical Problems in Computing 1

Ethical Problems in Computing 2

Ethical Problems in Computing 3

Ethics versus morals

Ethical issues

Ethical cases

Legal impacts

The 8 principles of the Data Protection Act

Police misuse of Ripa powers to spy on journalists is systemic, MPs told

BBC and Royal Mail 'using Ripa terror powers to spy on public'

RIPA: Passwords

The Grim RIPA

Five Welsh councils used undercover surveillance on staff

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – an overview

How Protection of Freedoms Bill will work

Protection of Freedoms Act 2012

Guide to Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations

Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR)

What is the Freedom of Information Act?

 A Short Guide to the Freedom of Information Act

Plain English Guide to Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information - a summary

Computer Misuse Act

Computer Misuse Act prosecution numbers falling

Computer Misuse Act 1990 cases

A brief history of Copyright.

Equality Act 2010

Equality act 2010: What do I Need to know?

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003: Threat or Menace?

Communications Act 2003

Digital Economy Act

A Guide to the Digital Economy Act 5 – Summary

Malicious Communications Offences

What is Sending Malicious Communications?

The UK’s 15 most infamous data breaches

Forrester Research Data Privacy Heat Map, 2015

India: Data Protection Laws In India: The Road Ahead

Data protection in India

Data Protection Laws Of The World (interactive)

Data Protection Laws Of The World (pdf)

ICLG comparisson tool

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 And Internet Connections Records

Data protection not just about personal data and compliance

Jargon buster guide to GDPR

Does Facebook own my pictures?

Pirate bay

Envirormental impacts

Environment issues

Environmental impacts

Useful links for Green IT

What is Green IT?

What Is Green IT, and Why Should You Care?

Green IT: Changing IT without it costing the earth.

Whatever happened to Green IT?

Pictures: India's Poor Risk Health to Mine Electronic "E-Waste"

India: The Rising Tide of E-Waste

BCS commentary on Greening Government ICT

Privacy issues