Hackers And Harvard

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Los Angeles — HUMAN nature hasn’t changed in a very long time, and the veneer of technology that we’ve layered onto our lives hardly alters this fact.

It may seem an obvious lesson. But it bears repeating during the current controversy over the 200 or so students who used the Internet to try to find out (before the official announcements) whether they had been accepted to business school. The Internet may entice honest folks to take risks they would probably never dare in the purely physical world, and it can complicate assessments of the seriousness and impact of those actions.

Many universities nowadays assign accounts to applicants that allow them to log into a Web site to check their admissions file. Earlier this month, someone posted on an online forum a simple procedure that was described as allowing students to discover the fate of their applications. The students who used it first logged into their accounts, then entered a minor modification into a Web address – the same sort of alterations that curious surfers routinely make all over the Internet.

As it turned out, many of those who tried this trick simply saw blank pages, but the schools could tell which students had made the attempts. Shortly afterward, several schools – including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University – announced that any students who had tried to check their status in this way would be denied admission.

Lost in this technologically enabled drama is a sense of proportionality. Nor is there recognition that a basic human attribute – simple curiosity – combined with the familiarity and detachment of a glowing computer screen at home, can easily lead to relatively minor transgressions that don’t deserve such harsh punishment.

On the scale of "hacks," this incident barely makes the needle quiver. Yes, the students shouldn’t have done it, since they presumably realized that they were trying to gain access to information that wasn’t intended for their eyes at that moment. On the other hand, they also knew that they were using their own accounts and would be looking only at their own status. They weren’t trying to alter files or gain access to others’ data.

American business schools are hardly bastions of ethics (although they have made progress in recent years), and in technology especially, the level of ethics instruction is abysmal. Yet this hasn’t stopped several deans from grandstanding. Dean Kim Clark of Harvard, for example, called the students’ behavior "unethical at best – a serious breach of trust that cannot be countered by rationalization." Such pronouncements make Dean Wormer from "Animal House" seem almost reasonable.

This isn’t to suggest that these students be held blameless. They showed a lack of judgment – as do the legions of us who insist on touching surfaces clearly marked with "wet paint" signs. But the punishment should fit the crime, not some kind of institutional public-relations strategy.

The schools at the center of this controversy still have an opportunity to turn it into something positive for everyone concerned, including society at large. Some schools, like Stanford, have declined to reject all applicants who tried to gain access to their information, instead asking them to explain themselves. But these schools should go further and use this incident as a "teachable moment."

Instead of rejecting these applicants based solely upon this shared lapse, the business schools could ask them to become the focal point of much-needed ethical education courses. These students could then serve as ambassadors of this cause to other students, faculty and, yes, administrators. Instead of being relegated to the ranks of student rejects, these applicants could become superior managers and executives by virtue of this experience – that is, if they’re permitted to continue their studies.

Lauren Weinstein is a founder of People for Internet Responsibility and the moderator of the Privacy Forum.

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