Sunday, November 05, 2006


A reader in Madison, Wis., alerted me to a political battle that is brewing in her city, which is the state capital. The issue revolves around campaign documents detailing the Democratic Party's strategic plans for the November election that somehow ended up in Republican hands.

The Republicans say that the documents were found in a copy machine in the state Capitol building, suggesting that someone in the Democratic Party may illegally have used state resources for campaign purposes. The Democrats claim that a Republican operative came across the documents that had been inadvertently left in a binder near the copy machine and rifled through them.

A reporter for The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the executive director of the Wisconsin Committee to Elect a Republican Senate told him that the documents were "used to further the cause of Republican candidates."

My reader wants to know how careless a competitor has to be before it is fair to copy found documents and use them for your own purposes.

"How public does the place have to be?" she asks. "Is it never right? Is it sometimes right?"

From an ethical standpoint, where a document is found does not matter. If it was clearly marked, the person who found it knew that its contents were confidential and belonged to someone else. It may be a political windfall to find documents that reveal your opponent's game plan, but using material that clearly belongs to someone else is tantamount to theft. The material doesn't, after all, leap from the copier into your hands.

The right thing to do in such a situation is either to walk on by or, better yet, to return the material -- unread, of course -- to its rightful owners. The owners may suspect that you read the material, but their suspicions are their own problem, though not as great a problem as their carelessness with sensitive documents.

Such considerations aren't limited to the political world, of course. The same sort of questions that my reader raises can be asked about any documents that clearly are meant to be confidential but are left within your easy view or grasp. What if, for example, a list of confidential salary information for your entire company is left at the copy machine by a human-resources employee?

While it's a natural temptation to want to know how you stack up against your colleagues, it would be wrong to study the material if you know that it's confidential and has been accidentally left behind. You may want to seize the opportunity to prove how underpaid you are compared to others, but there is no honor in capitalizing on someone else's mistake to further your own career.

Chances are that you wouldn't even think of popping into your boss's office to read her e-mail if she had left it up on her screen. Reading printed material that is clearly confidential, simply because you have accidental access, is every bit as wrong.

Professionals should certainly be taken to task when they are careless with sensitive information.

The negligent Democrat in Madison has doubtless gotten an earful from his or her superiors, and if he or she used a state-owned copy machine for party purposes, there will probably be legal consequences as well.

But someone else's carelessness is no justification for doing the wrong thing -- even if you stand to gain from doing so.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately we live in a time where nothing is confidential. To those who dare to step into the public arena, I simply say....Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey wrote: "Chances are that you wouldn't even think of popping into your boss's office to read her e-mail if she had left it up on her screen. Reading printed material that is clearly confidential, simply because you have accidental access, is every bit as wrong."

Amazing! First off I would NEVER look at someone e-mail like this. It is not only tacky-- involves trespass into some else's space in which they have an expectation of privacy. (A copier in a public space give NO expectation of privacy.)

And just because Part a WANTS to keep a secret from Party B does not mean Party A has a RIGHT to do so-- only a WISh to do so.

So disregarding that wish when there is no trespass of any sort is not some sort of evil deed. It may be wrong for me if I deem it so-- that is a matter or personal integrity. But a political party's secrets -- the means by which they wish to further their own aims at the expense of someone else's aims-- deserve no special protection. In fact, the very aim could be said to be unethical.

As a society, it seems, we are so used to thinking someone must lose for "me" to win that we think the means to get ahead are thereby justified.

Funny-- all the great teachers-- Jesus, Buddha, even Ghandi-- have taught otherwise. For "me" to win in the larger scheme ALL must win.

what a concept.

but copying documents with no intrinsic value, abandoned in public, "stealing"? I think not.