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Stack Exchange's privacy policy

I was bumbling about on Stack Exchange site Physics' meta area and saw this thread started by a Physics moderator who went on to suggest (in the thread) using moderator powers to find out the identity of certain users in order to contact their schools/colleges and "report" them for posting questions on the site - because they believe the questions are take home exam questions.

The moderator did not show any examples, so it is hard to tell whether this assessment was correct or not, but I am not here to debate that - I am wondering whether this sort of thing is generally considered an abuse of moderator powers or is it commonplace in the Stack Exchange network of sites for moderators to go prying into user identities like this?

I would have thought this was a breach of the privacy policy of the site for moderators to do the sort of thing suggested. If not, perhaps it should it be?

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As he wrote in the note: While we moderators have access to IP addresses and email IDs of users, we cannot, under any circumstances, reveal them. So, while we may report the incident to the professor conducting the course, we cannot help him/her verify the identity of the poster by providing these details. I don't think he was suggesting anything further than trying to find the assignment and university online via a search and dropping a hint that something was amiss. –  jonsca Dec 13 '12 at 4:20
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I mean this bit "The identification issue can be circumvented, to a degree. There is a way to verify if a user has a given email address (the URL of the avatar contains the md5 hash of the email), though this is not exactly reliable, as the email used to enter the gravatar can be changed without having to re-verify it. Also, it's complicated." –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 4:26
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I understand where you're coming from, but the URL of the gravatar is public information, any regular user or even a passerby can get that information from a profile or even a usercard. –  jonsca Dec 13 '12 at 4:32
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Well also the bit where they talk about finding out where the user goes to college and contacting their professors is a tad creepy, don't you think? –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 4:34
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Perhaps, but it's not a privacy issue. If you post your assignment that says "Evaluate the forces on a rollercoaster at UniFunLand Park", it should be pretty easy to find. Academic integrity is serious business. Would you be comfortable with a doctor who had posted all of his class questions on SE to find the answers? (or closer to reality, if you were a student in the physics class that had worked hard on the assignment and followed the rules about outside help) –  jonsca Dec 13 '12 at 4:36
    
I highly doubt it. –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 4:41
    
Doubt which part (it's my own fault, I edited the comment)? –  jonsca Dec 13 '12 at 4:41
    
doubt that someone would post their assignment (especially including the title) on such a public forum and expect it not to get noticed by their college. false accusations are serious too. –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 4:53
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You haven't been on Stack Overflow any time in the last 3 years, then. –  jonsca Dec 13 '12 at 4:57

3 Answers 3

who went on to suggest (in the thread) using moderator powers to find out the identity of certain users

I explicitly said that I can't use any mod powers here to investigate the person:

While we moderators have access to IP addresses and email IDs of users, we cannot, under any circumstances, reveal them.

To clarify my question, I meant: if we already know that a person is cheating on a test via Physics.SE, what ought we do about it ?. The post wasn't even primarily geared towards mods. Commenting, downvoting, emailing, or flagging are things that most users can do. (Locking and closing requires 3k rep and a moderator respectively, though).

I was open to suggestions of using mod powers to deal with the situation on-site (locking, deleting, etc), though I was opposed to it. Firing off an email to the professor doesn't require any mod powers, if you can find the paper (A Google search away, though in this case someone else did it for us), generally you can find the email of the prof. Most course pages have the email IDs of the profs/TAs somewhere.

This is all sifting through public information. Any user can do it, not just us. The privacy policy is about revealing private information (or using it for investigating a user when it isn't an issue with the site rules), not about finding public information.

The gravatar thing is, again, something anyone can do, and is known by many who are familiar with Gravatar. This has already been addressed here and here.


Regarding the particular case that sparked it off, one user posted an answer (which I deleted later, the answer box is not the place for this), and another posted a comment, both linking to the paper in question. I stumbled across these, and then posted on meta after a discussion with other mods.

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Then you should have made that clear. I asked for examples and got tumbleweed. It seemed very much like you were making assumptions based on an increase of a "type of question" close to exam time. –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 13:07
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@Magpie: Why is it necessary to justify my reasons for posting a particular meta post? I (and some other mods) decided we wanted a policy/community input on the matter, so I posted on meta. Maybe it was a bit unclear, but I fixed that now. You know the reason we didn't give examples. If you come to Physics Chat and ping me, I wouldn't mind pointing you to the specific posts. –  Manishearth Dec 13 '12 at 15:23
    
By that logic, users shouldn't have to write proper questions. If you don't express yourself clearly then you cannot complain/be surprised if your posts get misinterpreted. –  Magpie Dec 14 '12 at 2:24
    
@Magpie: It's meta, different rules apply. And I'm not surprised, except perhaps by the fact that you didn't even read the part of the question where "I explicitly said that I can't use any mod powers here to investigate the person" (see above). Point is, if you wanted clarification, you should have commented there (that's what comments are for). Your comments instead were on a completely different tangent. –  Manishearth Dec 14 '12 at 3:38
    
I did comment on there as well you know... –  Magpie Dec 14 '12 at 12:32
    
@Magpie your comments were asking for examples, while insinuating that we didn't have any. You could have asked for clarification of the situation instead, and we would have answered with the "we already know it's cheating, now what?" thing. –  Manishearth Dec 14 '12 at 12:44
    
Who are you trying to convince of your argument here? Me or those reading? We both know this is backtracking, come on now. –  Magpie Dec 14 '12 at 12:47
    
@Magpie Really? For one, I logged back on and I saw (a) your comments, (b) this meta post.. So I replied here.. I don't even have to defend myself for not replying to those, I'm talking about David's replies to your comments, I feel that it's understandable that he didn't clarify it there--he can't read my mind (though he was aware of the situation). I'm trying to convince you that David's comments were justified. I did reply to your comments, in this post above. –  Manishearth Dec 14 '12 at 12:52

who went on to suggest (in the thread) using moderator powers to find out the identity of certain users

It seems you rather severely misinterpreted what you read. The question you linked to does not suggest using moderator powers to "find out the identity of certain users." It explicitly states that doing so is forbidden.

While we moderators have access to IP addresses and email IDs of users, we cannot, under any circumstances, reveal them.

I must admit I'm rather confused as to how you got from that the conclusion that Manishearth was suggesting a breach of the privacy policy.

To be clear, there is no breach of the privacy policy implied or suggested.

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Again, the bit where you talk about finding where people go to college. How is that possible without using private information? –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 5:01
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You just put some key words of the question into a web search, and look to see if any exam papers come up which have substantially similar questions. The college and course will be identified on the exam paper. Note that in nearly all instances where this has been discovered, it was a regular user who found the connection, not a moderator. –  David Z Dec 13 '12 at 5:04
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And in fact I didn't talk about finding out where people go to college. Where are you getting this from? –  David Z Dec 13 '12 at 5:05
    
You did. How are you meant to write to their professors if you don't know what college they go to? –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 5:05
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Where in my answer here does it say anything about finding out where people go to college? –  David Z Dec 13 '12 at 5:08
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@magpie I think you underestimate the power of Google. –  simchona Dec 13 '12 at 6:10

We can argue back and forth about whether there is a responsibility for a site moderator/administrator to report academic misconduct, and there are strong arguments for both sides, honestly.

Everything that the moderator in question (Manish) suggested was above board, and attainable with publicly accessible information (the MD5 of the link to the gravatar is that of the users's email address -- hence gravatar can generate a unique avatar for users that don't specify one).

He very carefully specifies in his response what he is not advocating:

While we moderators have access to IP addresses and email IDs of users, we cannot, under any circumstances, reveal them. So, while we may report the incident to the professor conducting the course, we cannot help him/her verify the identity of the poster by providing these details.

I don't think there's an issue here, and I think that SE's users should have confidence that moderators are making ethical use of their private data.

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How is finding someone's college attainable? Very unlikely. –  Magpie Dec 13 '12 at 5:00
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@Magpie Very likely. How likely is the wording of the assignment not going to be unique? How likely is it that the modern college professor doesn't purposefully put "watermarks" in the wording to test for such things? –  jonsca Dec 13 '12 at 5:02
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Case in point: last semester I instantly recognized a question that was posted by a complete stranger as an assignment that I had just done the week before, without having to check anything else about the user (not even so much as visit their profile). Oh and I was in class when I first saw the question :) –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Dec 13 '12 at 5:05
    
was it you then? –  Magpie Dec 14 '12 at 23:54
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@Magpie I think it's time to let this one go. –  jonsca Dec 14 '12 at 23:56
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Yes perhaps you are right. I was skeptical until someone called "boltclock" told me they saw a homework question published on the internet once. The evidence IS overwhelmingly against my concern. I am glad we cleared this up, now I can go back to bed –  Magpie Dec 15 '12 at 0:07

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