Unprecedented Survey Gauges College Students’ Computer Use and Ethics

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Responsible computer use is a national policy issue Rochester Institute of Technology is seeking to better understand and promote.

Students at RIT are being asked to take a survey with wide-ranging implications for themselves and their peers across the country. The survey will inquire about computer use and ethics, and explore attitudes and perceptions of computer use and misuse.

“It’s the biggest and most comprehensive survey of its kind ever done,” says Sam McQuade, assistant professor of criminal justice at RIT and principal investigator.

“The empirical literature on computer crime is very weak,” he says. “In the last 30 years, there have been approximately 15 studies done. Think of the irony—we are in a war against terrorism potentially involving threats against information security systems and what do we know on the basis of empirical evidence about computer abuse and crimes? Very little it turns out.”

McQuade and Thomas Castellano, chair of criminal justice at RIT and co-principal investigator, designed the survey with graduate students Sara Berg, Nate Fisk and Eric Linden.

The three graduate students along with members of RIT’s SPARSA (Security Practices and Research Student Association) are administering the survey and consent forms to between 850 and 1,000 randomly selected students from all eight RIT colleges. The survey is being administered in classes with prior faculty approval and takes approximately 25 minutes to complete. Students who agree to take the survey are promised confidentiality and anonymity.

The 20-page, 165-question survey asks students about their computer use, knowledge of computer security techniques and instances of computer victimization. The survey inquires about students’ attitudes toward unauthorized access to computer systems, file and password sharing, and Internet plagiarism, for example, as well as perceptions of the prevalence of these activities among their peers.

Respondents are also asked about their own computer behavior—ranging from sharing files to writing viruses to hacking or harassing online—and whether they upgraded their computer for that purpose.

In addition, the survey asks students about the likelihood of being discovered and punished for such activities and how their parents, friends and respected adults would react. They are further asked to share their reasons for engaging in inappropriate or illegal computer behavior.

“The survey is not geared only to understand negative aspects of computer-related behavior, but also to understand why people behave ethically and responsibly in their use of electronic devices,” says McQuade.

“The survey would not have been possible without the support of faculty from across RIT who agreed to allow it to be conducted in their classes,” McQuade adds. “It is a testament to their commitment to research, and their interest and concern for responsible use of computers.”

External interest in the survey expressed by area colleges and universities could provide an opportunity for longitudinal and comparative research. McQuade also notes the survey’s potential national scope.

“Many college officials will not confront the level of computer abuse that is going on, on their campuses or through their information systems,” McQuade says. “But if we could perfect this survey, it could be adopted by other colleges across the country as a way of informing debates about reasonable and responsible use of computers.”

In March, McQuade and graduate student Berg will share insights about surveying computer use and ethics at the annual Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference in Las Vegas. Their presentation, “Using Research to Prevent Computer Crime in a College Setting,” will feature data derived from the pilot survey conducted last fall.