Commentary: Stay away from brain dumps

Just say no to brain dumps? In this commentary, SearchWin2000.com certification expert Ed Tittel explains why the temptation to feed your head at a brain dump just isn't worth the risks.

On Jan. 31, former brain-dump site owner Robert Keppel was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison and ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution to Microsoft. This sentence followed his criminal conviction for selling Microsoft trade secrets: Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) exam questions. By earlier agreement, Keppel also forfeited a Lexus RX300 and a Ferrari 355 Spider...

that he had bought with proceeds from certification practice exams -- which included the stolen questions -- that he sold through his now-defunct Web site, www.cheetsheets.com. The maximum possible sentence was 10 years with a fine of up to $250,000; so he wound up doing less than maximum time but paying much more than the maximum fine.

A major warning for the IT community resides in this outcome. Brain-dump sites have long been notorious for offering verbatim, uncensored access to exam questions. Apparently, Robert Keppel's products succeeded so well that Microsoft, never known for being shy about litigation, sought successfully to make him pay for his misdeeds.

Curiously, I was having a debate on the subject of brain dumps with the publisher of my Exam Cram 2 series of certification prep books at the same time this sentence was pronounced. The basic point in question boiled down to this: should we warn readers about brain dumps or ignore them entirely? We decided to keep mum for reasons related to the legal precedent set by the Keppel case, as well as what's best for certification candidates. After long discussion, we agreed that saying anything about brain dumps might be construed as a form of endorsement. We chose to say nothing rather than set foot into that potential legal and moral quagmire.

That said, brain dumps are still out there, and certification candidates will more than likely stumble upon them, with the same inevitability as teenagers encountering illegal drugs. It's therefore important that the unwitting, foolish and uneducated understand the risks that lie on the wrong side of law and ethics. It's also important that everyone understand that brain dumps and such things are unprincipled, unethical and profoundly illegal. In short, they're best avoided; if encountered, it's best to get away from them ASAP.

When it comes to preparing for certification exams, real knowledge, experience and understanding of the subject matter are the keys to passing. Using illegally obtained "inside information" does no one any good and calls the very credentials themselves into question. That's why Microsoft had to take this case to trial and why those who build a market around preparing individuals to certify fairly and honestly must speak out against brain dumps as well. If we don't, we all risk our own livelihoods. But that pales when compared with the danger presented by individuals who claim to possess skills and knowledge they truly lack.

Ed Tittel runs a content development company in Austin, Texas, and is the series editor of the Exam Cram 2 and Training Guide series. He's worked on many books about Microsoft, CompTIA, CIW, Sun and Java, and security certifications.

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Click here to ask Ed Tittel a question about certification.

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