Hacking into Harvard
CASE 2.1 Hacking into Harvard
Everyone wh o has ever applied for admission to a selective college or who has been interviewed for a
highly desired job knows the feeling of waiting impatiently to learn the result of one’s application. So
it’s not hard to identify with those applicants to some of the nation’s most prestigious MBA programs
who thought they had a chance to get an early glimpse at whether their ambition was to be fulfilled.
While visiting a Businessweek Online message board, they found instructions, posted by an anonymous
hacker, explaining how to find out what admission decision the business schools had made in their case.
Doing so wasn’t hard. The universities in question— Harvard, Dartmouth, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and
Stanford— used the same application software from Apply Yourself, Inc. Essentially, all one had to do
was change the very end of the applicant-specific URL to get to the supposedly restricted page
contain-ing the verdict on one’s application. In the nine hours it took Apply Yourself programmers to
patch the security flaw after it was posted, curiosity got the better of about two hundred applicants,
who couldn’t resist the temptation to discover whether they had been admitted. 19 Some of them got
only blank screens. But others learned that they had been tentatively accepted or tentatively rejected.
What they didn’t count on, however, were two things: first, that it wouldn’t take the business schools
long to learn what had happened and who had done it and, second, that the schools in question were
going to be very unhappy about it. Harvard was perhaps the most outspoken. Kim B. Clark, dean of the
business school, said, “ This behavior is unethical at best— a serious breach of trust that cannot be
countered by rationalization.” In a similar vein, Steve Nelson, the executive director of Harvard’s MBA
program, stated, “ Hacking into a system in this manner is unethical and also contrary to the behavior
we expect of leaders we aspire to develop.” It didn’t take Harvard long to make up its mind what to do
about it. It rejected all 119 applicants who had attempted to access the information. In an official
statement, Dean Clark wrote that the mission of the Harvard Business School “ is to educate principled
leaders who make a difference in the world. To achieve that, a person must have many skills and
qualities, including the highest standards of integrity, sound judgment and a strong moral compass— an
intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. Those who have hacked into this web site have failed to pass
that test.” Carnegie Mellon and MIT quickly followed suit. By rejecting the ethically chal-lenged, said
Richard L. Schmalensee, dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the schools are trying to “ send a
message to society as a whole that we are attempting to produce people that when they go out into
the world, they will behave ethically.” Duke and Dartmouth, where only a handful of students gained
access to their files, said they would take a case- by-case approach and didn’t publicly announce their
individual-ized determinations. But, given the competition for places in their MBA programs, it’s a safe
bet that few, if any, offending applicants were sitting in classrooms the following semester. Forty- two
applicants attempted to learn their results early at Stanford, which took a different tack. It invited the
accused hackers to explain themselves in writing. “ In the best case, what has been demonstrated here is
a lack of judgment; in the worst case, a lack of integrity,” said Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s director of
MBA admissions. “ One of the things we try to teach at business schools is making good decisions and
taking responsibility for your actions.” Six weeks later, however, the dean of Stanford Business School,
Robert Joss, reported, “ None of those who gained unauthorized access was able to explain his or her
actions to our satisfaction.” He added that he hoped the applicants “ might learn from their
experience.” Given the public’s concern over the wave of corporate scandals in recent years and its
growing interest in corporate social responsibility, business writers and other media com-mentators
warmly welcomed Harvard’s decisive response. But soon there was some sniping at the decision by
those claiming that Harvard and the other business schools had overreacted. Although 70 percent of
Harvard’s MBA students approved the decision, the undergraduate student newspa-per, The Crimson,
was skeptical. “ HBS [ Harvard Business School] has scored a media victory with its hard- line stance,” it
said in an editorial. “ Americans have been looking for a sign from the business community, particularly
its leading educa-tional institutions, that business ethics are a priority. HBS’s false bravado has given
them one, leaving 119 victims in angry hands.” As some critics pointed out, Harvard’s stance overlooked
the possibility that the hacker might have been a spouse or a parent who had access to the applicant’s
password and per-sonal identification number. In fact, one applicant said that this had happened to him.
His wife found the instructions at Businessweek Online and tried to check on the success of his
application. “ I’m really distraught over this,” he said. “ My wife is tearing her hair out.” To this,
Harvard’s Dean Clark responds, “ We expect applicants to be personally responsible for the access to
the website, and for the identification and passwords they receive.” Critics also reject the idea that the
offending applicants were “ hackers.” After all, they used their own personal identi-fication and
passwords to log on legitimately; all they did was to modify the URL to go to a different page. They
couldn’t change anything in their files or view anyone else’s informa-tion. In fact, some critics blamed
the business schools and Apply Yourself more than they did the applicants. If those pages were
supposed to be restricted, then it shouldn’t have been so easy to find one’s way to them. In an
interview, one of the Harvard applicants said that although he now sees that what he did was wrong, he
wasn’t thinking about that at the time— he just followed the hacker’s posted instructions out of
curiosity. He didn’t consider what he did to be “ hacking,” because any novice could have done the same
thing. “ I’m not an IT person by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “ I’m not even a great typist.”
He wrote the university a letter of apology. “ I admitted that I got curious and had a lapse in judgment,”
he said. “ I pointed out that I wasn’t trying to harm anyone and wasn’t trying to get an advantage over
anyone.” Another applicant said that he knew he had made a poor judgment but he was offended by
having his ethics called into question. “ I had no idea that they would have considered this a big deal.”
And some of those posting messages at Businessweek Online and other MBA- related sites believe the
offending applicants should be applauded. “ Exploiting weaknesses is what good business is all about.
Why would they ding you?” wrote one anonymous poster. Dean Schmalensee of MIT, however, defends
Harvard and MIT’s automatically rejecting everyone who peeked “ because it wasn’t an impulsive
mistake.” “ The instructions are reason-ably elaborate,” he said. “ You didn’t need a degree in compu-ter
science, but this clearly involved effort. You couldn’t do this casually without knowing that you were
doing something wrong. We’ve always taken ethics seriously, and this is a seri-ous matter.” To those
applicants who say that they didn’t do any harm, Schmalensee replies, “ Is there nothing wrong with
going through files just because you can?” To him and others, seeking unauthorized access to restricted
pages is as wrong as snooping through your boss’s desk to see whether you’ve been recommended for a
raise. Some commentators, however, suggest there may be a generation gap here. Students who grew
up with the Internet, they say, tend to see it as wide- open territory and don’t view this level of web
snooping as indicating a character flaw.
1. Suppose that you had been one of the MBA applicants who stumbled across an opportunity to learn
your results early. What would you have done, and why? Would you have considered it a moral decision?
If so, on what basis would you have made it?
2. Assess the morality of what the curious applicants did from the point of view of egoism, utilitarianism,
Kant’s ethics, Ross’s pluralism, and rule utilitarianism.
3. In your view, was it wrong for the MBA applicants to take an unauthorized peek at their application
files? Explain why you consider what they did morally permissible or imper-missible. What obligations,
ideals, and effects should the applicants have considered? Do you think, as some have suggested, that
there is a generation gap on this issue?
4. Did Harvard and MIT overreact, or was it necessary for them to respond as they did in order to send a
strong message about the importance of ethics? If you were a business- school admissions official, how
would you have handled this situation?
5. Assess the argument that the applicants who snooped were just engaging in the type of bold and
aggressive behavior that makes for business success. In your view, are these applicants likely to make
good business lead-ers? What about the argument that it’s really the fault of the universities for not
having more secure procedures, not the fault of the applicants who took advantage of that fact?
6. One of the applicants admits that he used poor judg-ment but believes that his ethics should not be
ques-tioned. What do you think he means? If he exercised poor judgment on a question of right and
wrong, isn’t that a matter of his ethics? Stanford’s Derrick Bolton distinguishes between a lapse of
judgment and a lack of integrity. What do you see as the difference? Based on this episode, what, if
anything, can we say about the ethics and the character of the curious applicants?
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