Hardware & Infrastructure
Commentary
2/25/2002
06:20 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary
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Langa Letter: That's The Company's PC

To what degree can an employee modify or add software to a company-supplied computer? Fred Langa examines the ethics and issues.

Q. Can using a freely available PC utility get you fired?

A. Yes, if you choose the wrong tool, or if you use it in the wrong context.

In a recent article, we discussed various utilities that can let you recover a forgotten password. One such tool was "Snadboy," an ancient Windows 95-style "password revealer." Snadboy turns the text-obscuring asterisks or dots in a password dialogue-box back into plain text, so you can write down the forgotten password and store it in a safe place.

That seems innocuous enough, but check out this horror story.

Fred: I have a bit of a problem. I was hurt doing my job and went on workman's compensation. While I was recovering, I was given modified work in the office. During this time, the office secretary told me she often forgot her passwords and had difficulty in accessing her data. I told her about Snadboy, a password revealer that changes asterisks into readable letters.

After a lot of trouble with the company, I was laid off. The reason I was given was that I told the secretary about the password-revealing software; they suspected I was an underhanded thief and would attempt to steal the office passwords and sensitive data. Now, based on that suspicion, they are trying to recover the pittance of compensation I was paid.

OK, this is my question: is Snadboy (and other software like it) legal software?

Herb

With few exceptions, most software is neither inherently legal nor illegal. It's the use of the software that's legal or illegal.

Let me use an analogy to clarify the issue. Let's say you lock yourself out of your car, but you have access to a slim-jim--a slender, flat hook used to open locked car doors without a key. It's perfectly legal to use a slim-jim on your own car. For that matter, it's legal to use it on someone else's car, with his full knowledge and permission. But you can't go around using it on strangers' cars without their consent. Possessing a lock-beating tool may give you the technical ability to access property that's not your own, but that doesn't give you the legal right to do so.

Now consider this: at work, "your" PC is really the company's PC--you're just allowed to use it. The company gets to set the rules for what is and isn't allowable behavior. The company decides what constitutes acceptable use of its equipment.

Sense And Nonsense
A company can outlaw Snadboy and all similar tools via a blanket policy, if it so chooses. But I believe that would be foolish, especially if this policy were applied rigidly, without thought and without regard to context and intent.

In the case of Snadboy, it takes no great imagination or technical expertise to see that a simple password-revealer has totally legitimate uses. Who hasn't forgotten a password at one time or another?

Plus, Snadboy-type password-revealers are useless against any but the simplest forms of password protection. If a company is using ultra-simple protection for highly sensitive corporate data, they have bigger problems than those posed by a childishly simple tool like Snadboy.

Common sense should apply. (Am I a dreamer, or what?) A reasonably savvy and caring manager should be able to discern between legitimate and nefarious intent in the use of software.

In this case, as a manager, if I found an employee using a simple, Snadboy-class tool, I'd certainly want to have a discussion with the employee to find out what the issues really were, to verify a benign intent, and to review privacy and security policies. But absent any additional evidence to suggest malicious intent on the part of the employee, it would be just that--a discussion--and not a disciplinary matter.

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