Server Fault is a question and answer site for system and network administrators. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

As a system administrator, are there things that may not be obvious that should not be done ethically or legally even when instructed to do it? I am more interested in legally, what sort of actions could seriously damage your future carrier or get you in trouble with the law.

For example, is it ever not okay to delete certain types of files even when the Boss requests it?

In particular, I am wondering about the United States. Also, I am not in a situation like this at the moment, another question just got me thinking that this is information I should know.

Really, I am not trying to trigger a discussion of ethics, or complicated scenarios where it would be best to call lawyer. But a checklist, or some literature, or some laws every IT person should know about.


locked by sysadmin1138 Jan 6 '12 at 2:54

This question exists because it has historical significance, but it is not considered a good, on-topic question for this site, so please do not use it as evidence that you can ask similar questions here. This question and its answers are frozen and cannot be changed. More info: help center.

This should really be a wiki article, as there is no right or wrong answer. – John Gardeniers Dec 9 '09 at 21:08
There may be no right or wrong answer, but there will be ethical and unethical answers, I'm sure ... shouldn't we award reputation for ethics? ;-) – Chris W. Rea Dec 9 '09 at 21:15
@John nonsense - you are still responsible for your actions – Jim B Dec 9 '09 at 21:15
+1 for a great question. – Chris W. Rea Dec 9 '09 at 21:16
Jim, you read something that I didn't write. At no point did I even hint that I didn't think we should be responsible for our actions. Quite the contrary. Have a read of my answer below. – John Gardeniers Dec 9 '09 at 21:23

12 Answers 12

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Ethically speaking, you could do a lot worse than follow


I think if you keep a paper/electronic trail of what's asked of you by your superiors, it should keep you safe from any legal trouble

i.e. don't just delete some records because your boss told you to while chatting at the water cooler because it might end up dragging you into sh*t that you don't know about and your boss can deny ever having told you to do such a thing. If your boss tells you something verbally, go back to your office and send him/her an e-mail "confirming" their request of you.

Ethics is a really tricky thing for a sys admin since we touch so many aspects of the business, but if something smells fishy to you, then get it in writing or print before doing it.

Indeed - if you're asked to do something "off the record", that usually means it's unethical. – pjc50 Dec 10 '09 at 12:02

As an american, if you are responsible for CMS systems that retain financial data, you should familiarise yourself with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which places obligations on businesses to retain certain types of financial records for a set period of time.

(Obligatory: IANAL)

I have looked at that before, but didn't really derive anything practical from it for an IT administrator (Maybe a CIO) ... – Kyle Brandt Dec 10 '09 at 12:39
SOX only matters if you are a public company (i.e. your company did IPO) or if the company intends to become public. – feniix May 3 '10 at 6:11

I'm no lawyer, so please take the following with a grain of salt.

As far as I know, the only issue with legality is if you are deleting evidence of illegal activities. That could certainly get you in some trouble.

On the other hand, if you have deleted records which do not contain evidence of anything illegal but still get subpoenaed after the fact, it is unlikely you would get in trouble for that.

How would you know that the subpoenaed records that you deleted didn't contain evidence of illegal activities? Anyhow, there are a lot of regulations in a lot of industries and government that dictate what records can and cannot be destroyed, and when. It's pretty complicated. – Boden Dec 9 '09 at 21:05
Here's a fun scenario. You work for a news publisher and in a recent case information on an ongoing investigation was leaked from the local police. The information put the local authoroties in a bad light, and they are desperate to find the source of the leak. Senior management assumes they will be able to find a judge to sign a search warrant. As your systems contain information that could identify any number of sources you are asked to delete the data and degauss all relevant tapes. The feds won't like it, but you have a constitutional right to protect your sources. What will you do? :) – Roy Dec 9 '09 at 21:57
Roy: Call a lawyer when it is that complicated :-) – Kyle Brandt Dec 9 '09 at 22:01
Unless they have reason to believe something illegal happened they can't just get a warrant to obtain sources. Here is a website that dives into those types of issues focused on journalists. – Shial Dec 10 '09 at 9:30
That's very true, and +1 for the reference. However, leaking information on an ongoing investigation is a crime most places so there's little question that something illegal has happened. Most states and countries have restrictions on searching newsrooms, but searches still happen. Strong encryption is the common way of protecting sources and whistleblowers against such scenarios, but there's a reason why some news organizations keep expensive degaussing equipment around. – Roy Dec 10 '09 at 13:14

This is an interesting question. What do we do when asked by an employer to do something clearly immoral and possibly illegal.

It could be accessing personal files or data, publishing material in embargo, deleting data that should be kept or keeping data that should be deleted.

I think the answer to this question must be rather subjective. Employees have varying protection and liabilities under different legal systems. Your position and status within the company may dictate the options available to you. Then, there is a personal factor. How far are you willing to go to keep your job?

Personally, I have refused to help distribute unsolicited mail and and actively prevented illegal publishing of voting results. Both times I was able to find support in the legal department and senior management respectively, but it's a fine line to walk - In both instances, a small misjudgement could have cost me my job even under Norway's protective laws.

The bottom line is, it's up to the individual to consider the situation, weigh responsibilities and loyalties, assess the risk, make a decision - and finally live with the consequences.


Ethics is a wonderfully fluid concept and varies greatly between cultures and places. 'Nuf said on that.

You need to first understand how the local laws apply to the situation, because sometimes it stops right there. I don't believe any of us should follow instructions which we know to violate the law, unless we are also prepared to accept any consequences arising from doing so. Next step is to apply you personal beliefs (ethics, morals, religious, whatever). There will at times be a conflict and you must make that decision yourself.

I've personally refused to do things on a number of occasions because I didn't believe that what I was asked to do was "right", either legally or morally. Sometimes I've won the argument and other times someone else has followed the same instructions because they felt less strongly about it (or feared losing their jobs). While I've never personally been sacked in such a situation I do know of others who have been. If I feel strongly enough I'll run that risk every time.

Hmmm... I agree with that. I wouldn't worry so much about losing my job, but of course, I have no kids or a mortgage :-) But really what I would like a list of things to always think twice about. Things to keep in mind with certain industries are good too, but I would think those industries tend to have orientation for that sort of thing. – Kyle Brandt Dec 9 '09 at 21:59
+1 for "Ethics [...] varies greatly between cultures and places." – CesarGon Dec 10 '09 at 12:12

I had actually written an article called "Managing the Manager" covering this topic, 6 years ago or so. But what it all comes down to is Cover Your A**

The principle all administrators should live by CYA always. It doesn't matter who is in charge, always do it for that "just in case." That is why a Computer Policy should always be implemented, it covers you from liability provided they sign it or at least pass it out with that intention. The same goes with the Local Security Policy login prompt, use it for that reason as well. As soon as they login to their computers, make it say they agree to the terms of the policy.

I have a personal experience with these types of situations, and guess what happened to me when the FBI arrested our CFO for several charges? Nothing, and because I CYA and all evidence was saved in case something bad happened.


Make sure you have a policy in place based on industry requirements (depending on what the company does these reqs will be different)

If I am ever asked to touch another users email or do some discovery I get something in writing from our HR department with their signature. I outright tell them its a CYA for me. People are willing to accept it when you tell them you do not want to violate any privacy of information and it also helps garner trust that you are that concerned.

The best insurance however is full backups in an offsite storage location. Particularly if you have a running policy of keeping several years worth somewhere secure (At my org we have a safety deposit box at wells fargo, tapes every month go there and stay there indefinantly) If you do delete something that turns out to have been illegal you can point investigators to the backups. If somebody ever wants the backups deleted then there is definitely something illegal going on.

There may be perfectly good reasons to have the backups deleted, subjective to applicable law. Some countries require that sensitive or personal data be deleted on the request of a customer or individual. Another is that communications logs often come under certain restrictions. The maximum retention in the EU is 12 months, at which time the logs must be deleted, including any backups. – Roy Dec 9 '09 at 21:32
not necessarily in many cases is simply getting rid of backups a sign of illegal activity (particularly finanicial firms). There are legal oblligations not to keep backups for an extended period of time for data like email and financial records – Jim B Dec 9 '09 at 21:35
Right, I think that is having a policy based on industry requirements. – Shial Dec 9 '09 at 21:43

First IANAL, but I have been involved in IT legalities issues. My understanding is that actions of IT come down to what can be reasonably expected for the IT person to know. EG the boss tells you to delete the acounting files. You KNOW that they are under investigation. You do that and you are likely to be charged with obstruction. On the other hand same situation and you did not have any idea that there was any investigation (and the goverment gets to make that determination), and it's reasonable that you would have been asked to delete those files, you would be OK.

as previously indicated there are other regulations that might apply. In biotech 21 cfr part 11 regulations would apply

As an IT staffer you are deemmed to have some understanding of what's reasonable and customary (I believe that's the legalese). It's not however illegal for them to fire you for not performing requested activities, the federal whistleblower statutes would apply. Small comfort as you're likely to be a marked man in many of the smaller states.


Great question. I can't really reference anything to the United States as I don't work there, but ethics / legality has been one of those things that often crops up in the work of anyone with elevated system privileges, but there doesn't seem to be anywhere near enough formalised guidance on. Personally, it makes me wish there was a strong industry body that represented us in the same way that doctors and lawyers do. I do know the (UK specific) British Computer Society having published a code of conduct for members, which made me join to feel breaching that code would be a reasonable relevant defence for turning an unethical request down I'm guessing maybe the ACM may be similar from a US point of view?

Personally, I tend to work to the same rules as others have mentioned. CYA. Document, audit, and log everything as far as is feasible, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable carrying out the request, I trust my moral compass and try to make sure its documented as authorised as high as I can get.


Check out the SAGE System Administrators' Code of Ethics.


As mentioned previously, there's obviously a fine line to walk in many situations that present ethical dilemmas. Most of us feel obligated by personal and professional standards to conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Government employees are subject to criminal sanctions in many cases for practices considered normal in the private sector. (Gifts from salesfolk, etc)

The best way to deal with these sorts of situations is to prevent them from happening.

For technical issues: limit privilege, setup procedures, internal controls and audit trails to make it difficult for people to conceal behavior. If everyone knows that an audit trail exists, that will serve as a deterrent. Push for data lifecycle policies... (ie. periodic eltion) In larger environments, you use the service desk/help desk to put a firewall between users & IT or users & accounting.

For human issues: You need to be aware of the law/regulations that you are subject to. Then you need to have a backbone. Say "no". Doing so may mean that you'll face reprisals from your management.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.