48

Suppose I have devised a way to cheat at cards, exams or any other situation in which secret communication with other people or machines provides unfair advantage. The method is novel and uses original technology and algorithms such that I think they might be worthy of a scientific publication.

The method is not a mathematical trick to solve a game while sticking to the rules, in which case I would see no ethical issue with publishing it. Think more of a method to remotely stream answers of a test directly into the retina without anyone else noticing.

I wonder if it would be unethical to publish this method in an academic journal. I personally feel strongly against cheating at exams, a little less strongly about cheating at cards but still, I wouldn't like to be making cheaters' life easier.

In their book "Beat the Market" Thorp and Kassouf write about why they published their method to edge their stock market investments. While the situation is different since using maths to make money is neither illegal nor unethical, some of their arguments might hold in my case.

In short, they say that they chose to publish their trick because other people will figure it out eventually, so:

  • They might as well get credit for it.
  • If everyone knows the technique, it becomes easier to replicate, detect and prevent.
  • As Syndrome from The Incredibles would say: "When everyone's super, no one will be."

Any other things I should be considering?

Let's ignore the legal aspects of that process since they are boring and off topic.

  • 17
    I think you'll need to make your question more specific. Cheating at cards and cheating at exams are hugely different: arguably "cheating" at cards (at least certain advantage-gaining techniques that are banned by casinos) is not cheating at all but is simply claimed to be cheating by casinos who want to ensure their games make money for them rather than lose it, and personally I would not consider the use of such techniques to be unethical, nor the advantage that they confer to be unfair - that situation is similar to your stock market example. So, as I said, I think more context is needed. – Dan Romik Feb 6 '17 at 7:50
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    @DanRomik I wrote that the method allows secret communication with people and computers, that's not akin to counting cards at blackjack. – Cape Code Feb 6 '17 at 7:53
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    Also closely related/near-duplicate: security.stackexchange.com/questions/52/…. This subject seems to have been thought about quite a lot by the information security community. – Dan Romik Feb 6 '17 at 8:37
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    They say: do not show magic card tricks to the people you play poker with :-) Apart from that, the usual thing applies: the fact that you make knowledge public doesn't mean that all people will know it. Some people will learn about it, and other's won't. Unless the method becomes universal knowledge, people will get an advantage by it. Though I see the point, I am not entirely convinced by the usual argument that revealing vulnerabilities to a general public makes it general knowledge. – Captain Emacs Feb 6 '17 at 9:16
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    As this is an ethical question I wouldn't expect a single answer to be right. I think maybe reading the physicists by Durrenmatt may help make up your mind on your own point of view. IMO i strongly stand by other people will figure it out eventually. – A.R Feb 6 '17 at 11:46
44

I can’t really tell you what to do with that vague level of detail, but I can give you an example.

There seems to be a team at the Ben-Gurion University in Israel that regularly comes up with obscure ways to transmit data to devices not connected via any network connection.

Stuff like:

The only uses I see for that stuff is to either help malware authors and intelligence agencies or make people aware of this communication channels to increase security.

If your findings are anything like this, I don’t see a problem.

Update After you clarified it's about a method to remotely stream answers of a test directly into the retina without anyone else noticing:

There are a lot of uses for such a technique which are not related to cheating. Pick some of them as motivation, and then later in your paper describe how this could also be used for cheating. Maybe give hints what some mitigation measures could be.

  • 10
    There are also groups working on things like cutting keys from long-lens photos and publishing in the literature. And many other fields with security applications. You (the OP) may want to look at security.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/disclosure as well – Chris H Feb 6 '17 at 11:54
  • OP, do you mean "connection" rather than "collection"? – shoover Feb 6 '17 at 16:20
  • @Josef Regarding your update: as I read the question, it's not necessarily about a method to remotely stream answers of a test directly to the retina, the OP was only offering that as an example of the sort of thing they're talking about. So I don't think we should assume that is actually what they're asking about. (Though I think the point you edited in still makes sense) – David Z Feb 7 '17 at 3:59
17

I'd go by precedence set by large companies such as Google. If you know of specific companies/organisations who would be affected by it, give them a notice period before you publish. After that, publish as you normally would.

Problems don't get resolved unless people are aware of them. If your cheat comes from the actual process, then the process needs to be changed. If it's not, then you've invented a valuable new technique.

  • In your example, Google are following "responsible disclosure" protocol which is expected behaviour from all those working in information security. – thosphor Feb 6 '17 at 16:54
8

Are there any less ethically dubious applications of your algorithm? I take it this is an incidental finding if you find cheating so unethical. If your main intention is to publish the method, perhaps it world be better to emphasise these other applications?

Either way, I'd recommend publishing anyway. Aside from prescedence and contributing to the literature being good for your career, it may also benefit those working to detect and reduce such unethical conduct. As you say, it's very possible someone less hesitant to use it will discover it so people who could prevent it being misused may as well be aware of it too.

7

Every research that contains some information can both help and be abused. It's not the research author, but rather the research user who can misuse the research.

I would just say that you shall try to present the findings in an unbiased way. I mean, what you find seems to be about secret communication between a computer and human, and not a priori about cheating. So just write the paper in this way.

2

You have created a novel method is that uses original technology and algorithms for secret communication with other people or machines.

The uses are not limited to cheating.

Someone that may use it to cheat has chosen to cheat.

If there are legitimate uses then focus on them and publish or sell it.

If the only use is to cheat then follow your ethics. And check with a lawyer. You may have created a method that is against some law - but I doubt it.

As far as poker pretty much any information sharing would be cheating. No coaching when the player is in a hand (one player to a hand) and no collusion. In most (if not all jurisdictions) even use of a computer or calculator is not allowed. Even compiling of advanced statistics can be against the rules. For even online play the analytics are limited. It is typically limited to raw data with very limited statistics and cannot recommend a play or give outcome of a line of play. If a good player had access to analytics available in tools today it would be a big difference. The tools alone are not illegal - using them during play is.

1

Say you have found an undocumented hole in https protocol. Are you sure that you are the only one ever before and ever after who found that hole? No, you aren't!

Now you have three options.

  1. Exploit it for your personal benefit.
  2. Leave it as is and wait for someone else to decide on their own.
  3. Describe the hole and make it public.

Option one is unethical. Option two is alibism.

In optin three anyone, who read the documentation, can exploit the hole you have found. But https devs can read it as well and have the chance to fix that hole.

The ones that do not use fixed protocol can be exploited and it is their problem, they were warned. And exploits will be succesfull only when obsolete version is used.

Back to your actual question: Describe the method you have found. Describe many uses of it including the cheating. I can assure you that there is someone (including you) that will find ways how to prevent such method for cheating or making it useless.

When grading, the examiner can allow this method and expect students to use it. Then accomodate the test to this new options.

-1

"Cheating" does not warrant a scientific publication, because cheating only works in the dark. Once people know, they disqualify you if you try it, and what's good in a publication that makes itself obsolete the second it is online? Other (non-scientific) magazines might of course like to tell their readers.

(I'm not talking about about a cheat that is not really about a specific game, but includes the discovery of a more general human trait or similar.)

If your trick is NOT against the current rules, but you just have understood something about the game that noone else has, then of course it's worth publishing. If the game does have some reputation among academics, that is. Chess, checkers, roulette are fine, some esoteric role-play game from last year probably not. ;-) But if your trick is sufficiently new and scientific, you should be able to transfer the principle.

That's of course generally necessary: You have to show how the principle of your trick is something new and undiscovered, or how it is a transfer from an unrelated subject. If it is bound to the special (faulty) rules of "Monopoly", it's not going to get a lot of scientific interest, and should go to a journal for professional gamblers or similar.

(Ethics is totally irrelavant. Someone else will have the same idea, and use it. It might be ethical to give some people advance notice, but that's hard to decide, as they could also make illegitimate profit with it. Same problem as with security leaks in software.)

(After reading the update to the question: Write the paper about the general technique, and put a notice in it how it could be abused.)

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