Considering Information System Acceptable Use Policies and Ethical Issues

Considering Information System Acceptable Use Policies and Ethical Issues
Brenneman University is located in the North Carolina Southern Piedmont area, in a college town framed by stately magnolias and stands of tall white pines. When classes are in session, students make up almost half the population of the town. The university is the largest employer in the area. Most residents of the town have some connection to the university. Acceptance to Brenneman is competitive. Currently, the university has about 10,000 total students, mostly undergraduate with about 2,000 graduate students. The university has grown significantly in the recent past, and some signs of growing pains are evident in the larger class sizes, stress on staff and faculty, and increases in overall traffic in the small town.
Arthur C. Watson, Ph.D. is a tenured full professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department in the College of Engineering at Brenneman. He has been at the university for fifteen years and has become a well-respected researcher within the area of mechanical engineering. At work, Watson is described as a quiet professor who generally minds his own business and keeps to himself in terms of mixing with fellow colleagues. He is known as an active researcher and also given accolades due to his mentorship of graduate students. In his mentorship roles, many students feel that he is more engaged with their lives than a typical professor. Some say that he shows a real interest in them and in their work.
For the last five years Watson has led the STEM outreach efforts of the College of Engineering. The STEM disciplines are Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Brenneman University is committed to working with local K-12 schools to generate more interest in careers in the STEM disciplines. In that role, Watson worked closely with students and faculty at the local schools to form teams of students age 8-12 to build robots. He coaches teams from local schools to prepare for and compete in regional and state robotics competitions, sometimes involving travel to competitions out of state. His robotics teams have done very well over the years. This extracurricular effort has garnered a lot of positive publicity for Watson and for the College of Engineering.
Currently Watson is working on a large research project and he hopes to present the results at an upcoming national engineering conference. The research project requires the use of sophisticated statistics software to analyze large data files.
As part of his research, Watson asked for, and the university provided him with, a new laptop computer with the fastest available processor and expansive storage space to
support his research needs. Given Watson’s positive profile in the community, his dean always tries to fund his resource requests. Unfortunately, Watson has been having problems with this computer. According to him, his computer often freezes when he tries to open his large data files. When this happens, he has to restart his computer and re-do the most recent complex statistical analyses. This process takes a considerable amount of time.
The problem seems to be getting worse, causing slowdowns in productivity and output, which prompted Watson’s request for technical assistance with his work-issued laptop. Adding to the ongoing computer issues, the deadline for submission to the upcoming conference is fast approaching. Watson is worried that the frequent delays will cause him to miss the deadline for submission and ultimately delaying the publication of his work.
Because Professor Watson knew that he would be out of the office all day Wednesday for meetings, on Tuesday afternoon he took his laptop to Lou Harris, one of the computer technicians in his college, and verbally asked him to take a look at the computer while he was gone.
The Engineering College’s Computer Technology Support (CTS) department maintains classroom and teaching lab computers, education technology equipment and software CTS also maintains office computers for the faculty and staff members, in addition to addressing student needs and questions. The department consists of one manager of technical support, Karl Robbins, and two full time technicians, Lou Harris and Donna Marks. CTS also employs student workers each semester to assist in serving the IT needs of the community.
The student workers maintain one public lab, two teaching computer labs, and the classroom computers located in the College of Engineering building. Their main duties are troubleshooting computers that do not work, installing new software and upgrades, restoring the default settings that have been changed, and periodically removing student files saved on the hard drives of the lab computers. Sometimes the student workers have to completely reinstall all of the software on the lab computers as a result of user misuse. Their job is coveted because the students learn a lot from the CTS staff, gain valuable technical expertise, and work hours that fit well to their school schedules.
Brenneman University has an information technology Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that is posted online and communicated to new employees when they are hired. Employees are required to sign a statement saying that they have read and understand the policy when they begin work at Brenneman. Students are also informed of the University’s Acceptable Use Policy when they enroll and they, too, are required to sign an acknowledgement of receipt of the policy. Further, students and employees are reminded of the policy each time they use a University computer by a banner on the log-in screen that says,
“Brenneman University computer network and systems are solely for authorized users in support of the University Mission of teaching, research, and service.
Uses that contradict the University Mission are strictly prohibited and may result in monitoring of use, denial of access and/or disciplinary measures including dismissal. By connecting to the system, you are agreeing to the University’s Acceptable Use Policy which is available online at Acceptable Use Policy.”
The University’s universal login screen also has a link to the full Acceptable Use Policy posted on the website login page. Thus, most students have a general awareness of AUP at Brenneman. Nevertheless, some students continue to play with the computer settings, delete applications on the computer, or download inappropriate or copyrighted material from the Internet. Most of the student workers take this all in stride, realizing that these activities just mean job security with the CTS department during their college careers.
In the CTS Department, Donna and Lou service the faculty and staff technology needs including distance learning and other educational technology needs. They also handle problems in the labs and classrooms that are referred to them when the solutions are beyond the capabilities of the student workers. Additionally, students are not allowed to work on faculty or staff computers because those computers have private and confidential information that needs to be protected under the rules of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). The CTS Director, Karl Robbins has decided that the risk of unauthorized access of faculty computers by students is an unnecessary risk, and therefore established a set of procedures for users and tech workers to follow when CTS service is required by faculty (see Appendix). The CTS Department runs well, and workers have a good sense of what it is that they are supposed to do to service the academic community.
Karl is well known and highly respected at the University, and he is also respected around town. He is a Senior Technology Manager on campus, and Engineering is a good location for him because it has many complex and interesting technological challenges for him to solve each and every day. He was a pioneer in implementing distance learning and other educational technologies at the university. He serves as an internal consultant to all of the other colleges at Brenneman, fielding calls from his peers throughout the day. He serves on almost every University level committee related to instructional technology and other technology matters on campus. Karl also participates in state and national activities related to technology in higher education. In the local community, he is known for his honesty and his integrity.    He is very active in charity and service organizations. He is the past president of Rotary, is active in Habitat for Humanity, and serves on the board of his church. His wife, Mary, is an Associate Provost at the University. Karl helps her in her duties as chair of the United Way Campaign drive.
Lou Harris has been with the College of Engineering for almost five years. Before that he worked in a similar position at the School of Business. Donna Marks has been with the College for three years. There isn’t a lot of turnover in these positions because everyone loves working for Karl.
On Wednesday morning, Lou Harris began working on Arthur’s computer. Given the conversation that he had with Professor Watson, Lou looked for obvious problems with
system settings and virus software. Nothing seemed amiss to him at his first scan of the computer. Certainly, Lou knew that intermittent problems are often difficult to diagnose. He really needed to see the state of the computer when it was acting up. To try to force the problem to occur, he decided to open several large files in “My Documents” to give a live example of the problem for diagnostic purposes. There were several folders labeled with names that included the word “research.” Lou selected and opened one of the research folders that had hundreds of files. The files were similarly named with a combination of letters and numbers but no recognizable words. He picked a very large file and opened it.
Lou was genuinely and deeply shocked at what he saw on the screen. The file contained what were clearly examples of child pornography–and not just a single image, but hundreds. Concerned, Lou called Donna Marks, another technician, into his office to show her what he had found. Donna was also very surprised and upset by what she saw.
Unsure of what to do, Donna and Lou took the laptop to their immediate supervisor, Karl. Similarly to Donna and Lou’s responses, Karl was also deeply disturbed by the images on the screen and was speechless for several minutes.
Donna and Lou were surprised by what Karl did next. First, he reprimanded Lou for violating the CTS service procedures by working on the computer without a service order request, for working on it without a second person in the room, and for violating Arthur Watson’s privacy. Then, curiously, he looked at Lou and Donna and said, “It would be in your best interest to forget what you saw. Return this laptop to Arthur Watson’s office and tell him that he has to submit a service request form before we can work on his computer.” Donna and Lou walked down the hall to Lou’s office without saying a word.
When they closed the door to Lou’s office, Donna said, “What should we do? We can’t just ignore this!”
Lou said, “Are you crazy? Didn’t you hear Karl? He made it clear our jobs are on the line. I can’t afford to lose my job for violating department procedures. Don’t forget my wife lost her job eighteen months ago and has run out of unemployment insurance. We are living on my income alone and we have two kids who will be going to college soon. I am going to do exactly what Karl said to do – nothing more, nothing less.”
Donna said, “Lou, what if we made a call to the university’s whistleblower hotline? It would be anonymous. No one would know it was us who made the call.”
“Yes, they would. Karl knows what we saw. And furthermore, I think the hotline goes to the internal audit department and Arthur Watson is a golfing buddy with the internal auditor’s husband. The university and the town are too small to keep our role in this anonymous,” Lou said.
“Lou, we aren’t the only ones who have access to that laptop. Arthur has a grad assistant who enters grades in the electronic grade book that he keeps on his office computer. If
she saw any of those files, she could claim it was a hostile workplace and sue the university. For that matter, so could we if the University doesn’t do anything about it.”
“Well, good luck with that, Donna. Once we lose our jobs, where will we get the money for a lawyer to sue the university? As far as I am concerned, I did my duty by reporting it to Karl. The ball is in his court now. I wash my hands of it.”
“Lou, child pornography is very wrong and it is also illegal. We can’t just ignore this.”
Appendix — CTS Service Request Procedures for the College of Engineering
1.    Faculty and staff who need assistance with their computers are to complete an online service request form 2.    The manager of technical support will assign the service request to one of the technical support staff or student workers.
3.    The assigned worker will contact the faculty or staff member to schedule the service call. 4.    After the computer is serviced, faculty and staff are encouraged to complete a customer service satisfaction survey to assist in evaluating the department’s performance. 5.    Because faculty and staff may have private student information, such as student Social Security numbers and grades, that is covered by FERPA and confidential information such as test banks and solution manuals on their computers, CTS requires that either the user or a second technician must be present when they work on a faculty or staff computer.

Discusion Question:

What do you think Lou and Donna should do in this situation? Explain the issues of action and inaction, and discuss what you believe to be right and compare it to what might be the requirements of the job. If what is right is different than what is required by the job, how would you decide which path to take? How do you recommend that Lou and Donna act in terms of these two differing choices.

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