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The Ethics of Geekdom

Posted by susabelle at 11:35 AM on May 20, 2009

I have just had my second encounter with a coworker accessing my computer without my permission, on my login.  This means two of the twenty people in my department have some questionable ethics.  I’m laying odds that it’s more than that, but I’ve only known of two at this point, and I don’t want to make too many assumptions.

What really bugs me is that I would never do this to either of the people who did it to me, or to anyone else in my department, much less the entire campus.  There is no reason I would need to, and quite honestly, whatever they are working on is none of my business.  This most recent episode was borne of nosiness, a coworker wanted to know what fun new toy I was getting that she is not.  I had been gone from my desk for about twenty minutes, and came back to find her hunched over my desk with her hand on the mouse, clicking through my recent documents folder.  When she saw me, she made a very lame joke and laughed, as if I would just think it was all some sort of harmless chicanery.

There is nothing harmless about accessing someone else’s files.  It should never occur in the workplace, especially between members of the IT department.  Our jobs, out of necessity, give us access to things that other people on campus don’t have access to.  I have a master key that will let me in any room in any building on campus.  I also have rights to servers and desktop machines, for the purpose of fixing problems or providing training to our end users.  I take my job seriously, and I cannot imagine a time when it would be okay for me to access the files of our campus president, for example, or those of a faculty member.  There is just no rationale for me doing that, and further, my own personal ethics would stop me from doing so.  I equate snooping in someone’s computer the same as snooping through a purse or wallet or dresser drawers.  It just isn’t done.

I have been told by our department manager that I need to lock my computer when I leave my office.  And yes, I know I can lock it and it is easy to do, even though I have to do it three times (three active computers on my desk).  But I don’t feel that I should have to do that.  I should be able to trust my coworkers, the people that sit in the same office with me, the people that I am entrusting work to and accepting work from.  These are people that, presumably, have the same “best interests” of the campus and the department in mind in everything they do.

Of course, presumption and assumption are one thing, and reality can be vastly different.  As a geek with a lot of technical power over users, it is a disappointing to think that our users may not be safe from the geeks tasked with keeping them up and running.  Very sad indeed.