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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 under-employed IT professionals.

Training organisations are responding by intensifying their efforts to catch cheaters through cutting edge defences, such as biometric identification of test-takers and custom, computer-generated exams.

As IT certifications become a pre-requisite for jobs and promotions, IT professionals are feeling more pressure to pass the exams. IT professionals cheat by paying someone as much as $2,500 to take an exam or by using stolen tests purchased over the Internet commonly referred to as "braindump" materials.

In a survey of 200 IT professionals on IT Ethics, 58% said they felt that using "braindump" training materials was unethical yet 72% of respondents think that IT professionals use braindump materials on a regular-to-frequent basis. And 12% have directly witnessed someone cheating on a certification exam.

"Cheating is up by about 10%," says Jill Burroughs, director of exam services at CompTIA, which offers 11 certifications for IT professionals including CompTIA A+ and CompTIA Security +. "Since the economy collapsed, the incidents of cheating have been steadily going up...It's human nature that in a down economy, people get desperate... They rationalise that they have to cheat because they are out of work and need a job."

Stolen IT certification exams and materials are "one of our biggest issues," says Keith Kupferschmid, senior vice president of intellectual property at the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA). SIAA focuses on ferreting out sellers of braindump materials, which are unauthorised exam study guides, sometimes stolen copies of actual tests, that are available for purchase over the Internet.

Kupferschmid says test-takers are looking for "any edge they can get, just like a spitball or taking steroids in baseball... People think that if they can get the prior test or get the test answers ahead of time, it will help them pass the test."

Increase in plagiarism

News that more IT pros are cheating on certification exams comes at a time when the nation's top computer science schools are grappling with an outbreak of cheating on homework assignments. More computer science students are caught plagiarising code or working together on assignments than students in any other major on campuses such as Stanford University and the University of Washington.

Cheating among IT pros happens at the workplace, too, as US companies step out of compliance with their software licences. The full scope of the problem is becoming more apparent as more disgruntled IT professionals are turning into whistleblowers against their bosses.

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

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 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 websites that are unauthorised 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 US 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."