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Databases and The Ethics of Sharing Passwords

:: Randy Cohen writes perhaps my favorite column, The Ethicist (ID and PW: podbay), for the NYTimes Magazine. He is the author of The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations. In the Sept 7, 2003, issue of the NYTimes Magazine, he responded to a question from a high school student regarding the use of online resources at a university attended by her brother, by using his password to gain access. I work at a university with a large number of online resources, and wonder how often this happens, since we are unable to patrol who actually is using passwords when off campus. Here is the question and Cohen’s response:

    Q: Last spring I was a high-school sophomore struggling with a research paper. My brother was a sophomore at a prestigious university with an excellent online library. He offered me his user name and password, providing access to resources unavailable to the public. Keeping in mind the thousands of dollars spent on his tuition and that the university wouldn’t lose anything by my getting an A on the paper, could I have accepted his offer? Sara Smolley, Florida.

    A: If the library access your brother offered was, as I gather, unauthorized, then it wasn’t his to offer, and it certainly wasn’t yours to accept. (He’s not allowed to swipe college office supplies and send them to you, either. Too bad, I know. But that’s ethics for you.) Were he to have done the research for you — something rare in the annals of big brotherhood — that wouldn’t change things. His library privileges, presumably, permit him to do his own work, not to set up a reference service. That he pays a lot of tuition is beside the point: those who shoulder Ivy prices must obey the rules, too.

    What’s more, the university could indeed lose if all students passed along their passwords to reference-hungry relatives. An overloaded system with delays for legit users is no boon to higher learning. But even if the school doesn’t lose, you’d be on shaky moral ground. Yours is the same rationalization of those who hook up their own cable TV’s or sneak onto the subway (or, more rarely, hook up their own cable TV’s on the subway). For these services to be sustained — libraries, HBO or IRT — each user must pay his or her fair share.

    On the bright side, there are many fine public libraries right there in Florida (if the Legislature hasn’t cut their budget), as well as many publicly accessible sites for online research.

Cohen’s reponse covers a lot of ground, and raises further questions. I’ve often dealt with users who come to the library and tell me that they are doing research for their boyfriend/girlfriend/pal/sister/uncle/whomever. Is it my place to advise a user that she or he cannot use our resources because they are not doing their own work, or are from off-campus? To be sure, we have a lot of off-campus patrons who come to the library to use our terminals, knowing that these machines are connected to the Internet. Ostensibly the computers we provide are for the use of our students, staff and faculty. At the same time, we are a publicly funded institution, so the line gets a bit blurry. What do you think?

Cohen, Randy. The way we live now: 9-7-03: the ethicist – nuclear strategy. New York Times Magazine, Sept 7, 2003, p28.

7 Responses to “Databases and The Ethics of Sharing Passwords”

  1. Murphy Says:

    Obviously the Ivy schools and the UofA are different than little ol’ UNBC, which was founded as a community university with all of northern BC in mind. Community borrowers are around and able to use the systems and books (although I think they pay a small fee for their card – I’ll ask Jo).

    I’m also curious, what happens when someone from outside comes to you and asks you to do research? I know they pay; is it something you do outside of your work hours? But are you using the system when someone else might need it?


  2. Keith Says:

    Do you realize the absurdity of this “unauthorized use” ethical argument when you yourself are providing your readers with your ID and password to the NY Times so that they don’t need their own subscription?

    The cost of policing unauthorized use has to be balanced with the increased costs associated with the authorized use. Admittedly, at some point when dealing with limited resources, the unauthorized use becomes a real problem. This goes back to my old argument about compliance:

  3. randy Says:

    Keith: There is no absurdity here. I’m only supplying a generic pw so that you as the reader don’t have to register for your own at the moment. There is no “subscription” here; I’m not paying for anything, it’s free to anyone who wants to register. Completely and utterly different what what Cohen is discussing.

  4. Keith Says:

    Actually, they aren’t that much different. That’s the problem with ethics: what seems at first glance to be absolute black and white can upon reflection change into shades of grey.

    Here you are lending your registered *identity* even if you created the ID/password with the intention of sharing it among your readers.

    This comment is brought to you by today’s test application: Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 SP2 running on Windows 95B.

  5. randy Says:

    I think we can agree to disagree on this interpretation. If money was changing hands for use of the pw, it would be different.

    I still believe ethics needs to be taught to grade schoolers. Why it isn’t in our educational system is a mystery, but then, it never has been. Do they teach ethics in high school in Canada?

  6. Keith Says:

    So if a public library card is free, then it’s okay for me to borrow my neighbor’s card, but if the card costs $5, then it’s wrong?

  7. randy Says:

    Again, not the same thing. The card is the responsibility of the card’s “owner”. If I lend you my card and you borrow a CD and damage it, it’s my problem. I have to pay for it, and try to get you to reimburse me. Using my card, you could borrow some CDs, and try to sell them to a pawn shop, in effect stealing from the collection and committing, I believe, fraud. However, at the outset I shouldn’t be lending you my card anyway – the contract most likely says that lending a card isn’t permitted.

    I see no parallel between what you can do with my card, and letting people use a generic ID and PW that costs nothing and only permits access to online materials for seven days. If you download an article using a generic ID I’ve set up, and then use it on your web site, and get in trouble with the NYTimes as a result, that’s your problem, not mine.

    So, that’s all I’m going to say for now…

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