What legal issues should you research as a sysadmin to avoid you, or your employer, being accused of negligence, or of violating privacy, etc?

While laws vary from country to country and state to state, it could still be enlightening if you have an example of a law which you, or someone you know, has broken without realizing it.

  • btw, wish i had a good synonym for "gotcha" - i hate that word.
    – username
    May 22, 2009 at 16:03

10 Answers 10


It largely varies on a few things like what industry you're in (the following applies to the USA only)...

A lot of the smaller jobs I've worked have been pretty bad about PCI DSS storing CC info in plaintext, publicly accessible database server... basics that were just neglected.

  • 1
    One of the challenges, particularly for small businesses, is that some of the regulations mentioned (HIPAA for instance) can be confusing or ambiguous. The theory is that the regs are written not to force companies to lock-in to particular solutions, but taking that wiggle room for granted could be problematic.
    – Milner
    May 22, 2009 at 16:24
  • +1 @Milner, attempts in these regulations to be 'technology agnostic' leave little clear direction, which is both good and bad. The best most of us can do is have a clear Policy + Procedures that explains how you address the gray areas -- and then sticking to it (or revising, then sticking to it). Having to explain why you didn't follow your own SOP is a bad situation.
    – nedm
    May 22, 2009 at 17:07
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    Can we add federal rules of discovery (law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/…) in the US (retention requirements). Also, breach notification laws exist in many states and a federal healthcare information breach notice standard was passed as part of ARRA and is currently being drafted (dwt.com/LearningCenter/Advisories?find=79311)
    – nedm
    May 22, 2009 at 17:24

The following applies to the USA only;

CIPA: Children's Internet Protection Act

Specially if you're employed by an state or federal educational entity: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.html

FOIA: Freedom of Information Act

Again if you're employed by a government entity: http://www.fcc.gov/foia/

FERPA: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

Education: http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html

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    Child Porn - your business can go under because your servers were in a datacenter NEXT TO some servers that had child porn on them (in the US). You really can't be too paranoid about this. May 22, 2009 at 16:45

Be aware of the legal side of network analysis and intrusion detection. Some places, an unauthorized use of nmap can be considered a crime, as can trying to break into systems for security (non-malicious) purposes.

Be aware of software licensing issues, both for end users (if you deal with them) and for your servers and other sysadmins. Know the possible ramifications if you choose to run pirated software on a business server.

Be aware of privacy laws for your place of business, on the local, state, and federal law. Know what info you are and aren't allowed to store. Also know what info you are and aren't allowed to look at, both in legal terms and as laid down by your company guidelines.

On the flip side, be aware of information retention laws for your place of business. Know what info you're required to keep, how long you need to keep it, and who you have to divulge it to when requested. Be able to draw the line between privacy and complying with regulations (and know when to stand up for one or the other).

  • 1
    There's more to licensing than just piracy. Lots of software we take for granted at home that has liberal personal-use licenses are much more restrictively licensed for commercial use. It's not safe to assume it's freeware everywhere. May 22, 2009 at 17:05

I'm in the UK, and I'd say the most important laws to an average ecommerce business would be:

  • The Data Protection Act
  • Distance Selling Regulations and Trade Descriptions Act
  • Certain parts of The Companies Act - for example you have to have your registered company number and address on a business website even if you don't sell anything. I've seen that one broken many times.
  • PCI Compliance (ok, not a law but important)

This question can actually only be answered if you tell us where you are located.

Personally I consider the SysAdmin to be the person that is in charge of each and every bit of data, thus carries the largest risk when data is lost/exposed/abused (Even if you won't face legal consequences your boss will come to you and you will have to explain why on earth the data could get out of your company).

I personally make sure that:

  • In case it's needed I can access each piece of information (everything, after all I'm the standing on the wrong side of the fan when shit hits it)
  • I tell this to my boss
  • I tell my boss that I won't access anything without permission
  • I tell my boss that I will ask for another party to watch me and the requestor if I don't feel comfortable with the data access request
  • I want all of the above signed and sealed in a written manner

Other things I make sure:

  • Hear everything
  • See everything
  • Talk about nothing

These points aren't about snooping around in files or anything like that, it's just about the regular chatting with colleagues and co-workers and trying to fit together the different pieces.

Talk about nothing nothing means to not participate in the chatting from a certain point, people come to me regularly with requests about lost passwords, files to be restored or other stuff. That could lead back to ceertain opinions about otherwise hard working people, I don't want that.

  • Tell everyone about the stuff my boss and I agreed over

This can be in terms of talking from person to person, company mails or posters with friendly reminders that there's a party in the company that could access all data.

These aren't exactly examples of laws colleagues or I stumbled over. But that is the part where "Talk about nothing" comes to play. Sorry to disappoint you with examples.


Your Data Protection legislation. Your employer's AUP - know it inside out - it applies to you too!


There are various state legislationss concerning PII (Personally Identifiable Information) in the event of a data breach. California's 1386 requires that everybody who as affected by the data breach (compromise of their information) must be notified. Many other states have similar provisions.

Also as a clarification on PCI-DSS, that is not a strictly legal requirement, the card brands (MasterCard, Visa, Discover, AmEx) require their merchant banks to require the vendors to adhere to PCI-DSS. If you violate PCI, you won't prosecuted legally, however you can be fined thousands of dollars a day (or more) by your merchant bank while you are in violation. If you don't come into compliance, you will eventually lose your ability to do credit card transactions, which would be a kiss of death for most online retailers.


PCI DSS for customers who take credit cards, and the chance that every time you enable logging that you might be required to produce those logs in the future. Sometimes it is better not to have recorded anything.


E-discovery is a big "gotcha." These are the requirements in the US to preserve electronic information in the event of a lawsuit, and to make it available to the other party.

The sysadmin should spend some time with the company's lawyers BEFORE the first time the company is sued so that you have a plan in place to comply with these requirements if you ever have to. Failure to preserve all the necessary electronic records (and in the right way) immediately upon a lawsuit coming up and hurt the company tremendously (including losing a lawsuit that might not otherwise have been lost).


In a policing or crown council environment, you need to be careful when handling digital evidence. The last thing you want is to be required to testify in court when all you did was help convert some sort of media from one format to another.

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