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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.
Evil Tools?
Of course, not all tools are so benign. Some utilities have few if any legitimate uses. For example, crackers (malicious hackers) recently released a tool that could generate a seemingly unlimited number of Windows product-activation codes for Microsoft XP software. The crackers figured out the algorithm that Microsoft uses, and wrote software to generate bogus codes that the WPA system would accept as genuine.

I can think of no legitimate uses for this tool. The whole reason the tool exists is simply to violate the XP software license. Although I think WPA is a bad thing, I don't advocate software piracy as a way to fight back--piracy is just plain wrong.

Unlike a simple Snadboy-class tool, the WPA crack will almost always be used only for illegitimate purposes, and so possession of such a tool seems to be highly suggestive of malicious intent. But even here, as a manager, I'd ask the employee for an explanation, and what the tool was being used for. Although he'd have an uphill climb to overcome my skepticism about this kind of utility, it still does no harm to ask, "What's going on here?" and to listen to the answer.

Judgment, Not Simple Rules
Password revealers, packet sniffers, software auditors, keystroke loggers, and many other software tools are no different from anything else in life. They can be used either for good or evil; they really can't be dealt with as a yes/no or black/white issue. Just as with the use of a slim-jim, context should matter.

But the reality is: some companies do have rigid software policies, authored by technologically clueless managers or committees. Once written, the rules apply, even if they're dumb. In cases like this, using a tool even as simple as Snadboy can get you fired.

There are additional factors. For example, in the United States, employee policies are supposed to be established and publicized (a company can't invoke retroactive or secret rules), and the policies must be applied equally to all employees. But labor laws vary widely, so my advice to Herb is: Talk to a lawyer.

My advice to everyone else is this: Realize your work PC belongs to the company, not to you. Check your company's "acceptable use" rules, and be aware that anything and everything you do on the PC is subject to those policies and rules--even if the rules are stupid!

Does your company let you do more or less what you want with your PC, or are you bound by a rigid set of rules? If your company has an "acceptable use" policy, does it make sense? How does your company handle cases like Herb's? Have you ever run afoul of a too-restrictive or too-vague computer-use policy? Join in the discussion!

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