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IT Pros Wrestle With Ethics

Preliminary results of Dark Reading's survey show that the rules aren't always well-defined, or followed, in the data center

When it comes to IT security, the concepts of "right" and "wrong" aren't universal.

That's the preliminary conclusion we're reaching as Dark Reading collects the initial results of its "Security Scruples" survey, which began last week. The survey is still open for responses.

So far, we've received more than 400 responses to the survey, and the results show some significant differences in the way IT and security professionals view their "scruples" -- their ethical responsibilities in their jobs.

For example, some 62 percent of respondents to our survey say unauthorized access to computer information "is never okay." Yet more than a third (37.5 percent) of IT and security pros admit to abusing their security privileges to peek at colleagues' emails or unauthorized company files. About 10 percent say they do their peeking on a regular basis.

A similar mix of results came from a hypothetical question in which the survey respondent discovers a colleague accessing unauthorized data. While 51 percent of IT and security pros surveyed said they would report the perpetrator, some 47 percent said they would keep it between themselves and the colleague. Two percent said they would ask the colleague how to do it so they could access the data, too.

Confusion over the ethics of IT security is creating hiring problems for IT departments, according to some of the survey's initial respondents. "It's quite difficult to determine someone's ethics in an interview; they only become known over time," notes Steve Watne, manager of enterprise security at the Toro Co.

"System administrators that are 'peeking' at data are breaking a trust that has been granted to them, and it is wrong, plain and simple," Watne says. "I'm sure that those who do it justify it to themselves in a variety of ways, but an attitude that they are entitled to do it is an attitude that cannot be abided in an organization."

Most early respondents say their job-related security scruples are developed from their own personal ethics, rather than being taught by universities or IT management. Some believe the industry would benefit from a formal code of ethics, while others believe such a code would make no appreciable impact on IT staffers' behavior.

"Hiring the right kind of people goes further than trying to define all actions," says Jay Wallis, controller and IT manager at Empire Roofing. "If people are not willing to do the 'right thing,' no code or policy will deter them."

Organizations also face serious ethical issues at the corporate level, according to initial survey results. When asked whether they would go public with a suspected violation of their organization's customer database, fewer than half of the respondents said they would notify customers, regulatory and law enforcement officers, and the press. This response is surprising, given the recent passage of many state laws that require such full disclosure.

"The threat of possible legal sanctions, for many companies, is outweighed by the probability of damaged reputation from disclosure," said an IT staffer who works in a law enforcement office and asked not to be identified. "If a company fails to disclose a security breach, they might eventually get sued if someone discovers it. If a company discloses a security breach, then they will definitely get sued by the victims."

Dark Reading will be conducting its "Security Scruples" survey through Oct. 15. To give us your opinions, take the survey by clicking here.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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