A question (now migrated to Super User) has been asked that I originally thought was a simple problem, and posted a simple solution.

Then on the comments to my answer I had to force some details from the OP, and I found out what was the real question (tm).

He wanted to copy every line from a text file where her girlfriend's name is.

I feel bad about answering the question, and if I delete my own answer, that bit of info would be lost.

What should I do?

  • 1
    That question has been migrated. Could you edit to link to point to it on SU (where it is now)
    – Macha
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 19:54
  • Duplicate question - meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3528/…
    – ChrisF Mod
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 20:26
  • Curse you, @upvoter!
    – perbert
    Commented Mar 11, 2010 at 21:06
  • 2
    perl -p -i -e 's/Hillary/Monica/g;' LoveLetters/*
    – Paul
    Commented Jul 20, 2010 at 2:32
  • I ran across a similar question on SO today. Do we have a community rule against asking questions that would clearly lead to illegal behavior? I want to say "yes", but I can not find the rule. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 16:52
  • 3
    It should be noted that no ethically-trained software engineer would ever consent to write a DestroyBaghdad procedure. Basic professional ethics would instead require him to write a DestroyCity procedure, to which Baghdad could be given as a parameter. - Nathaniel Borenstein
    – Matsemann
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 8:01

2 Answers 2


I look at it this way. If the question asker does not make it apparent that there is illegal activity going along, I will answer the question without trying to draw my own conclusions.

If I have reservations, I will make notes of that in the answer.

If I have strong reservations, I would post a comment and alert a moderator.

I don't really think it's our duty to be judging the ethics of questions if there is not blatant conflict. If there is a blatant conflict, you shouldn't feel obligated to answer (seeing as how nobody is obligated to answer in the first place).

  • 4
    I say answer it anyway, even if you have legal concerns. Hey, how are you to know what is and isn't legal where he is? Maybe he lives on the moon. Do you know anything about Moon justice? Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 14:45
  • I'm not asking about legality, but rather if I should delete my (now incorrect) answer loosing the information that the text value is her gf name.
    – perbert
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 14:48
  • 4
    If your answer is incorrect, delete or update it. The fact that the example value was his girlfriends name is of no consequence to anyone. Except maybe him. And probably her. I wonder if she knows what a fuss she's caused.
    – devinb
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 17:07
  • @Pesto Perhaps on Luna Prime citizens take their privacy very seriously, and violators would be shoved out the nearest airlock.
    – Paul
    Commented Jul 20, 2010 at 2:27

In general, everything that can be used for good purposes can be used for bad purposes. I.E. How do I monitor all internet usage through a particular router? 1. (Because I need to monitor my employees) 2. (Because I am doing a scientific study on internet page attention and retention)

The exact same technical question can be construed as good or bad based on that.

In this case, the OP was asking how to extract information from a textfile based on a keyword, he chose the name of his girlfriend as an example. Maybe he's a bad dude who's trying to spy on her, and maybe he's just doing his job and he used her name in his example text.

Either way, technical questions deserve technical answers.

We have no way of knowing someone's intentions. And even if we trust this user with the technical information we're provided, that will in no way stop the untrustworthy person from coming along later with the exact same question.

We have to accept that many of the answers can be used for evil, but SO is designed to be a source of technical information, and so that's what it should be. You should answer the question.

  • One thing are technical questions that have a potential, and another that have a clear intent. There is a reason I tryed to answer the OQ. I even edited the question to make it general enough. But I feel dirty answering his original problem. If you are going to spy on your girlfriend using string matching, at least learn to do it yourself...
    – perbert
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 14:39
  • 6
    He's trying to learn to do it himself. And you're still attaching ethical implications to string matching.
    – devinb
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 14:49
  • Ok, may be It just stroke a nerve on me and I'm really pushing it.
    – perbert
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 14:57
  • 1
    There are limits, though: "What's the best way to scan the commercial software I get off warez sites for malware?" isn't something I'd answer. Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 15:17
  • 3
    I wouldn't answer it either. But, if the person phrased it as "What's the best way to scan downloaded software for malware" then it's acceptable. It could have been a trial version of something he downloaded from a company he's not familiar with. My point is simply that the technical questions don't have ethics implicit. we are attaching ethical implications to what we assume are their intentions. But we have no way of knowing their intentions.
    – devinb
    Commented Sep 14, 2009 at 15:26
  • Maybe he should have used a generic name like "Jane Doe"...
    – Cole Tobin
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 6:53

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