Deceased Student Ethical Case

© Copyright 1998 by John Halleck

Any company that provides computer services is likely to have files belonging to many different people on its system. The more people you have, the more likely it is that you will eventually have files for people no longer able to take care of their own affairs.

Such problems can occur with customers, or with one's own employees, or even one's administrators.

Here at the University of Utah, we've had all these issues come up. Many of the ethical decisions are already made for us here by University Policy, and many of the decisions get bumped up to University Legal to make. In an organization that doesn't have its own legal department, such decisions have to be made by the computer administrators themselves.

Many of the issues below are (in real life) decided by people attempting to apply their ethical experience in life to the new situations. Since such items come up unexpectedly, administrators often make decisions that their hindsight says were not the right ones. Maybe a little discussion now will make it easier for someone to make the "right" decision later.

The issues below are all taken from experience here. The names have been changed to avoid complications. Some supporting facts have been changed slightly to make the issues clearer.

Deceased Student Issues

Sally Forth walks in and informs us that

This poses a number of problems, some of them ethical. For example, this might be a scam to get Joe's files. What should you take as acceptable evidence for the claims?

(In real life, the University here has a policy that says that we turn the entire issue over to University Legal, which is what we did.)

If we assume that you have to make the decisions yourself, then there are plenty of issues to deal with.

If you give the files to her you could be directly contradicting Joe Blow's wishes in his will. He might have wanted them destroyed...

On the other hand he might not have left a will. How does that change things?

Do you give up the files if you know they are of a nature that nobody's mother is likely to want to know about their son? If they show illegal activity? If they show that his accidental death is suicide? (For which items would you involve the police?)

Should you even be looking to see what the files are? Is it even practical to print them out for her without noticing what they are?

You notice that one file is clearly the finished assignment in a course he was taking. Do you turn it in for him?

Is it obvious why we decided to turn this over to the lawyers instead of deciding ourselves? We knew in advance that University Legal won't turn over anything to anybody without a court order. Does this change your opinion of whether or not we did the right thing? Would it be the right choice if we know that the only things in Joe's directory are school assignments? Would it be right to give that information to Sally? Is it acceptable to just claim that nothing is there to save Sally having to deal with the courts?

There are files (such as programs) that can't be printed out. Do you just dump them on a disk and give it to them knowing they probably won't be able to do anything? Or just tell them that what printed was it? Or try to explain why programs aren't printable?

How long do you wait before trashing the files? Is there a "Statute of Limitations" for electronic files?

What if a will is one of the files?

--- Actual comments of local administrators trying to bring prior experience to the problem: (Which all bring up other issues...)

"In the [U.S]. army when we had to send someone's effects back we opened his locker and threw away the drugs and dirty magazines, and sent the rest to the family."

"I can't be expected to know the legal [stuff], if they want the files they can show a court order."

"If the files were unimportant, I'd just tell them that we deleted them when we closed the account."

"I can't see how a dead guy cares about the files, I'd just delete them."

"The messages are between him and the person writing to him. I won't release them for anybody but the two of them."

"The dorms just box it up and sent it to the parents, I think we should do the same."

"If they had moved their mail to a floppy, we would have given it to the parents with the rest of the stuff they might have left here. So... I think we should give it to them even if they didn't move the mail."

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This page is © Copyright 1996 by John Halleck
This page was last modified on April 23rd, 1998