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How IT pros cheat on certification exams

Carolyn Duffy Marsan | Feb. 17, 2011
Incidents of cheating on IT certifications are on the rise, a trend that experts say is an outward sign of the desperation felt by out-of-work and underemployed IT professionals.

A whopping 89% of those surveyed by Network World said it was unethical for an IT employee to make the company fall out of compliance with software license agreements. Yet 70% had witnessed other IT folks knowingly violate software licenses.

Why are there so many IT cheats?

"I think it's cultural," says Stephen Northcutt, president of The SANS Technology Institute and author of the book "IT Ethics Handbook: Right and Wrong for IT Professionals." "Router jocks tend to be young, male and ADD...You add to that the sense of anonymity, that when you're on a computer screen you don't think people can watch you. There's a sense that nobody knows what you do on the Internet.''

Another reason cheating on certification exams is up: IT pros don't always consider it to be wrong. In the Network World survey, 42% of IT professionals said it was OK to use braindump materials even though use of them could result in the vendor revoking their certifications.

"A lot of the people who are buying these exams are parents buying them for their kids," Kupferschmid said, pointing out that many Internet users don't consider buying braindump materials unethical. "These exams are so easy to get over the Internet. It's a big problem...People wouldn't steal a book out of a bookstore, but they would download it."

Braindump sites are numerous and proliferating. CompTIA lists 130 Web sites that are unauthorized training sites for its exams. It warns test takers that they may be precluded from taking an exam or may have their certifications revoked if they are found to use materials from these sites.

Another reason for the rise in cheating on IT certification exams is the U.S. Defense Department's 8570 Directive, which requires military employees and contractors to pass security exams in order to continue working in information assurance roles. The Defense Department is one of the few employers in the United States that is demanding IT certifications as a condition of employment.

"That's a high-stakes situation because if you don't get your certification you get fired or retired in DoD parlance," Northcutt says, pointing out that the 8570 Directive requires people to pass tests such as the Global Information Assurance Certificate (GIAC) exams offered by SANS. "We've had cases where the proctors let the people cheat by letting them use Internet resources. We're an open book exam, but not open Internet."

Catching cheaters

What happens to IT pros caught cheating? It depends on the egregiousness of the incident. A cheater's exam score will be invalidated and he may be suspended from taking exams from those training organizations for a year. Individuals caught selling braindump materials over the Internet are subject to lawsuits and hefty fines.


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