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2009-02-23 Heinemann questions 2.5

posted Feb 23, 2009, 3:14 AM by Unknown user   [ updated Apr 10, 2009, 1:43 AM by Eddie Woo ]
For further details, please refer to IPT: S&E Issues with Databases

Question 1

A flat-file database is used by a school for student records. There are separate files for student data, financial data, teacher data and assessment results. A relational database has been suggested to the principal as a better system. Outline the advantages of a relational database over a flat-file database. Your answer should contain references to data accuracy, data redundancy, security and development time.

A relational database allows for links to be made between different tables. This is superior to several flat file tables as the data from one table will be updated instantly in any tables with the same data, hence ensuring a higher chance of data accuracy.

By making links instead of repeating data, a relational database also avoids storing superfluous amounts of data. This may be a concern for a school with potentially thousands of students and hence thousands of student records.

However, security may be compromised with a relational database. This relates to the aptly-named social and ethical issue, "breakdown of privacy through linking databases". It is possible that, previously, access to one flat-file database was given to a group of people who were denied access to another flat-file database (e.g. access to student data but not financial data). A relational database that links the flat-file databases may also unintentionally allow the wrong people to access certain data. However, a properly-designed database with appropriate access restrictions would mitigate the risk of such an incident.

Nevertheless, a relational database may be considered more secure as one file is easier to keep track of than several. Relational databases also do not have a standard file format such as CSV which flat-file databases have, making the data slightly more difficult to steal on a practical level (although hypothetically all that one needs to do is to acquire the software needed to open the file format).

A relational database takes longer to develop; however, in the long run, time will be saved as a relational database is more automatic, particularly in updating data.

Question 2

Privacy and access to data are two important issues related to databases. Consider a student database containing name, address, gender, ethnicity, family, financial status, health, discipline record and assessment results. Should access to this data be given to the student, other students, teachers, the department of education, potential employers or other organisations? Is there a need to provide groups with limited access? Explain your answers.

Access to this data should be extremely restricted, and none of the groups of people apart from the student should be allowed to access this data.  Other students should not be provided with this data as they have no automatic right to it - it neither concerns them nor belongs to them. However, beyond this point, a "moral grey zone" is reached.

The amount of data that should be provided to teachers is debatable. Teachers may feel that they have a right to know who they are teaching and dealing with on a regular basis. However, information on topics such as "financial status" is mostly irrelevant to teaching and should not be disclosed unless permission from the student or parent is given.

The same applies to the department of education, although in this case, the details of ethnicity should be removed. This is because teachers would know the ethnicity of their students anyway, but the department would not as they do not interact with the students, and department staff may be (subconsciously or otherwise) prejudiced with their actions based on this information - keeping in mind that the goal of information is to aid decision-making.

Potential employers and other organisations should not have access to discipline records, although this depends on the age of the students. Assuming that the students are children, this information should not be disclosed to the aforementioned parties to protect children with initial discipline problems from being able to pursue a career.

However, the answers to the above question will vary based on society, and the many paradigm shifts that society has a tendancy to experience. Ultimately, it is a question of privacy and protection versus transparency and accountability.

Question 3

'Databases should not have the same copyright protection as books and software'. Do you agree with this statement? Give reasons for your view.

Databases should not recieve the same copyright protection as books and software, The copyright for books and software allows the authors of such creative works to earn money from their creations and to recieve credit. System developers would earn the same amount of money if their databases were not protected under "creative" copyright as they would if their databases were protected under "creative" copyright.

Furthermore, most of the content in databases are not the creation of the database creator. They are automatically generated, such as phone numbers and postcodes, public domain, such as street names, and surnames, or simply parts of the language, such as "yes" and "healthy".

Databases should only be protected by "freedom of information laws", which protect the privacy of the individual whom the database concerns.

Question 4

Max Music is a small business that offers an online shopping service for customers via the Internet. Customers place orders for CDs using their credit cards and register preferences for categories of music. This data is stored in a database. Research indicates that preferences for music are also a good indicator for book and video preferences. Describe the ethical issues raised if Max Music sells each customer's preferences to a book company.

Max Music may only do this if the customer has previously agreed to an "End User License Agreement" which stated that such use of the data is allowed. If this is indeed the case, then Max Music would be legally protected even if it did sell the information.

However, credit card data and other financial data may be stored in the database that ends up being sold. This may even extend to credit card numbers. Even if Max Music only sells a portion of their database, the relational links may result in a breakdown of data privacy through linking tables in databases. The book company may accidentally receive a copy of all the customers and their credit card numbers, which could lead to various complications and allegations of scam.
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