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A friend of mine, along with ~10 of their colleagues, recently received an email from the IT department saying the department is investigating those students for using two pieces of cracked software. Apparently, the vendor contacted the university about this.

My friend was asked NOT to remove the software from his computer. Moreover, IT staff checked his computer without him being around (privacy breach?). They were emailed and asked several questions as well like: "Do you have the license?, do you have the software?, and is there an IT staff member overseeing your computer?"

They are now waiting to hear back.

My questions are:

How serious is this based on the above information?

What are the potential consequences?

Is it possible to get a fine for this?

Would there be any academic consequences?

Note: While using cracked software is obviously wrong, their research demanded using such software. The advisor knew this and allowed it to happen. So part of the responsibility should fall on the supervisor as well (my opinion).

Addition: This is a large North American university.

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    If it is a university-owned computer on a university network, why do you expect privacy? – Jon Custer Feb 12 at 22:26
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    It depends upon the laws of your jurisdiction and country as well as policies of your school. – Richard Erickson Feb 12 at 22:26
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    Well, in my non-academic environment it is quite clear - it is not my computer, it belongs to the company, and our security folks can and will run scans as needed to ensure compliance (including licensing). Large universities have large risks if they do not have cyber policies and procedures to deal with any number of risks. – Jon Custer Feb 12 at 22:36
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    You seem to think that a human is trolling through files. Network scan tools are highly automated to go find stuff like software without a valid license. And, of course, since the university signed off on the NDA, the university IT folks are bound by it - they won't disclose it. Again, if you are on somebody else's network, you should not assume any privacy. – Jon Custer Feb 12 at 23:11
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    @user18244 I think your expectations are misplaced here. Almost invariably, when you work at any large institution which provides a computing environment, you will be required to agree to conditions that give IT the power to investigate this kind of misuse. They couldn't do their job otherwise. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 13 at 0:49
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Usual disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Several things to consider here:

  1. It is the university's responsibility to maintain their computers, including their contents. So if your friends have been using a computer provided by the university with cracked software on them, the vendor of the software will go after the university first. They just want to get paid what they're owed, so it's better to go after a large university than some broke students.

  2. Normally, the university should have only provided students with user accounts, which do not allow the installation of software, which in turn is to be done by IT personnel with admin accounts. If they don't do this, shame on them, this is poor practice that warrants some fines here and there (and the cost saved with IT employees probably makes them insist on the poor practice).

  3. If students had admin accounts to these machines, they have probably signed a contract/memo/agreement claiming they'd be responsible in such situation. Bad for them, but the vendor will prefer to go after the university first.

  4. Part of grant money and department budgets are precisely meant to pay for tools required by research activities, which nowadays always include computers and software. There is no excuse for using cracked software over the long run.

  5. To be clear, this is a matter of money, not of academic merit. As long as your friends behave during the process, they should expect to be fined, but not expelled. The university will come after them if they receive a fine from the vendor.

  6. "Normal practice" (which I'm not endorsing here) when using pirated software for your academic work is to use it only in your personal machine and only if the department owns licenses for said software. In some large universities, they might even have "campus licenses" for software, making this ideia completely useless. The point is that you have the right to use the software, as your department paid for it, but instead of using it during office hours, you might prefer doing it from midnight to 6 am in the comfort of your bedroom.

  7. If nobody has the license for the software, you might be in trouble to publish results obtained from it. But then again, you can first obtain results, then the license, then attempt a publication. You might even just ask for a trial license.

  8. If these computers were owned by the university, there is no breach of privacy here. If they were owned by the students, IT should not have nosed around these machines without the students permission. And by the way, never grant someone the right to audit a machine of yours, specially if unsupervised. Everybody has secrets/nudes/browser history/work worth keeping private, all of which should only be kept/done in private computers.

My bet for the outcome (and please update your post in the future to inform us):

  1. Students get away with a warning.

  2. Advisor gets a warning and needs to spare budget to acquire the license, if the license is affordable. Otherwise, activities using this software will need to be dropped.

  3. Story gets muffled, people will go around saying "It is yet to see what happens" until everyone forgets about the case. Then people will simply stop talking about it. This is to avoid having precedence of cracked software usage and preventing it from becoming common place.

EDIT Just as an extreme example, there are software licenses that costs millions of dollars. Paying a fine over the value of license would warrant firing the professor who allowed its pirated use, as long as the university indeed pays the fine (unlikely) and had good policies to avoid it in the first place (further unlikely).

There is also software whose commercialization is restricted due to national security risks. Missile simulation tools come to mind. Here there is more than a "money problem", there is illegal usage of a controlled piece of software. But I'd hardly expect this to be the case.

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  • Thanks a lot for the insight and the detailed input! – user18244 Feb 14 at 2:27

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