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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, which certainly gives much food for thought.

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

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