Ethical Frameworks and Computer Security Trolley Problems: Foundations for Conversations


Tadayoshi Kohno, University of Washington; Yasemin Acar, Paderborn University & George Washington University; Wulf Loh, Universität Tübingen

Distinguished Paper Award Winner


The computer security research community regularly tackles ethical questions. The field of ethics / moral philosophy has for centuries considered what it means to be "morally good" or at least "morally allowed / acceptable". Among philosophy's contributions are (1) frameworks for evaluating the morality of actions—including the well-established consequentialist and deontological frameworks—and (2) scenarios (like trolley problems) featuring moral dilemmas that can facilitate discussion about and intellectual inquiry into different perspectives on moral reasoning and decision-making. In a classic trolley problem, consequentialist and deontological analyses may render different outcomes. In this research, we explicitly make and explore connections between moral questions in computer security research and ethics / moral philosophy through the creation and analysis of trolley problem-like computer security-themed moral dilemmas and, in doing so, we seek to contribute to conversations among security researchers about the morality of security research-related decisions. We explicitly do not seek to define what is morally right or wrong, nor do we argue for one framework over another. Indeed, the consequentialist and deontological frameworks that we center, in addition to coming to different conclusions for our scenarios, have significant limitations. Instead, by offering our scenarios and by comparing two different approaches to ethics, we strive to contribute to how the computer security research field considers and converses about ethical questions, especially when there are different perspectives on what is morally right or acceptable. Our vision is for this work to be broadly useful to the computer security community, including to researchers as they embark on (or choose not to embark on), conduct, and write about their research, to program committees as they evaluate submissions, and to educators as they teach about computer security and ethics.

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@inproceedings {291190,
author = {Tadayoshi Kohno and Yasemin Acar and Wulf Loh},
title = {Ethical Frameworks and Computer Security Trolley Problems: Foundations for Conversations},
booktitle = {32nd USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 23)},
year = {2023},
isbn = {978-1-939133-37-3},
address = {Anaheim, CA},
pages = {5145--5162},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug