We admit to a perverse fondness for stories relating the perfidies of academia, although we diligently attempt to mask that perversity by citing more serious principles for our interest. It is thus that we discuss Princeton Universitys Internet second story job on Yale Universitys admissions Website.
Last April, Stephen E. LeMenager, then Admissions Director of Princeton, entered Yales Website, violating the privacy admonitions of the site. To implement his unauthorized entry, LeMenager used birth dates and social security numbers of applicants to both schools, information required by Princeton, but provided with a reasonable expectation that it would be used for no untoward purpose.
What LeMenager and later other employees of Princetons admissions office to whom he described his little sneak and peek were looking for or found, or what they did with the information, is still somewhat murky at this point. Following an internal investigation concluded several weeks ago, Princeton president Shirley M. Tilghman indicated that the motivation was no more than interest in Yales Website security and curiosity. Perhaps, but that explanation rings a bit hollow. After all, Yale regarded the intrusion as serious enough to refer to the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut.
University presidents are among the slickest operators in the universe, and Tilghman didnt get to Princeton on the back of a turnip truck. After submitting that the Princeton admissions office was inhabited by technological naïfs, she said, "That does not excuse what happened, but it helps explain their failure to recognize that what happened was wrong. We will learn from this and make changes and move on to a better place."
To be sure, LeMenager has been transferred to another job, and all involved are to be disciplined, albeit in some unspecified way. Princetons Dean of Admissions, Fred Hargadon, who knew of LeMenagers actions, but did nothing to stop or report them to others in the administration, is being allowed to retire at the end of the academic year, as previously planned. Princeton has provided the results of the internal investigation to the U.S. Attorney.
Yale President Richard C. Levin, no slouch himself, was exceptionally gracious regarding the contretemps, saying, "President Tilghman has handled a very difficult situation in an exemplary manner."
The New York Times weighed in, writing in an editorial, " the ethics and legality of using the Internet are still so poorly grasped by even our most sophisticated citizens .we still have a long way to go before it is widely understood that prying into a Web site is no different from ransacking a mailbox and stealing a letter addressed to someone else."
Thats true, but hacking is hacking, and hacking is a crime. Were this any university other than Princeton, one might simply cluck over universities spying on one another and let the U.S. Attorney finish his investigation. But Princeton is also the home of Professor Edward Felten and other computer scientists, who know as much about this stuff as anyone alive. Felten is the cryptographer who cracked a digital anti-copying technology and then decided to publish the results. Thus ensued a long, nasty, highly public battle, culminating in a federal district judge dismissing a case brought by Felten and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) declared unconstitutional.
Technologically ignorant they may be in Princetons admissions department, but technologically ignorant they aint at Princeton. Tilghman is herself a distinguished scientist and for years chaired Princetons Council on Science and Technology, the specific purpose of which is to teach science and technology to non-science students.
Felten, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Napsterites and their progeny, a bunch of open source code proponents and others, some of whom are employed by other prominent universities, can be said to be leading the charge for what could be aptly described as "the everything is free and should be public movement." They march under banners of academic freedom and exceptionally tortured interpretations of fair use and the First Amendment.
Each and all are contributing to a growing culture without respect for privacy or intellectual property rights, as any recording, movie or software company executive can tell you. Computers and digital technology are nifty developments, in their place, used wisely and honestly. But they created no licenses to invade the privacy or steal the property of others, whether through ignorance, larceny or misguided principles.
Lets hope President Tilghmans concept of "moving on to a better place" really means that and not just moving away from Princetons temporary embarrassment. Princeton could be as likely a university as any to rediscover, and perhaps even teach, that right and wrong still mean something.September 5, 2002