Snow Days, Facebook and Cheating
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Q - I am a high school student. My math final was postponed because of a mid-day snow storm, but a friend of mine had taken the test earlier that day. That night while I was studying, I paused to take a peek at my Facebook news feed and saw that my friend had posted a page from the test. I didn't realize what it was at first so I looked at it. But when I realized what it was, I deleted it. I took the test the next day and did not say anything. I had studied hard and would have gotten those answers right anyway. Was I right to say nothing?

A - OK, let's set aside the question of right and wrong for a moment. Does your friend actually want to go to college? Does he want eventually to get a job? Does he realize how exposed he is right now? Assuming he sent the answers to all his Facebook friends, not just you, someone is bound to rat on him. And even if not, the evidence is out there in cyberspace, and that means it's there forever. Even if this teacher is clueless as to the ways of social networking, some other teacher or prospective employer or college admissions officer will find out about it.

What happened is similar to the recent cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida, where 600 business students were forced to retake an exam after the professor got wind that hundreds of them had gotten access to the answer key online. The professor's speech to the students has become a YouTube classic. The incident has sparked soul searching on that campus and well beyond, as people have speculated about a generational divide as to what constitutes cheating. It has simply become far too easy to cheat and few seem to care. But the technology that giveth also taketh away, and it is now much easier to detect cheating, which is what that UCF professor was able to do after a statistical analysis of the students' answers.

You didn't cheat actively, since you couldn't know that it was your exam until you were already looking at it. But you should have privately encouraged your friend to 'fess up and then, assuming he didn't, you should have informed the teacher that the test was compromised. If that page was seen by enough eyes, the scores may have been skewed, to the detriment of those whose only sin is that they are not addicted to Facebook.

Lawyers call it inadvertent disclosure when they gain access to material of value accidently sent by the other side. Legal ethicists often give the benefit of the doubt to passive recipients of such material, but Jewish law would be less charitable: you would be guilty of "G'neivat Da'at," the stealing of knowledge, and, as this essay explains, you would also be culpable of assisting a wrongdoer.

The next time someone shoots you online answers to a test, think of it as a computer virus. Open at your own risk.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here.  Read his blog here


Last Update:

02/04/2011 - 10:14
Ethics, Jewish life, Judaism

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Back to Genevat Da'at. I see that in Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:30, Rav Moshe says that cheating (by stealing test answers ahead of time) is Genevat Da'at because the person administering the exam has been fooled into believing that the test taker arrived at the answers on his own accord. Again, not connected to stealing ideas, but rather fooling people.
Although I appreciate your piece on cheating, your use of Genevat Da'at seems to be incorrect. Genevat Da'at, although it sounds like it, is not halachicly "the stealing of knowledge". The Talmud in TB Hulin 94b is the main source for the concept of G"D in halacha. The examples given there refer to telling someone something that isn't true or fooling them into believing something you know to be false -- claiming to a gentile that the food you are giving him is kosher when you no that it is not, inviting someone for a meal when you know that they cannot accept the invitation, sending presents to someone when you know they cannot accept them, pretending to be going out of your way for someone when you really did not, etc. This concept of Genevat Da'at or fooling someone is codified by Maimonides (De'ot 2:6) and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 228:6). It really has nothing to do with stealing information. That is why copyright issues are so prickly in Jewish Law. Unless one argued that the Genevat Da'at here is allowing the school to believe that the test taker knew the answers without cheating. Perhaps one could make such an argument -- although I am not totally convinced. In the final analysis, the test taker did know the answers to the questions. How the person studied -- in this case by having access to the questions on the exam ahead of time -- may not fit easily or clearly into specific Halachik categories. It still seems wrong and unethical. The question really is why is it so?

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