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A SWAT for getting involved in a college prank

Submitted by on Thursday, 28 May 2009 5 Comments

He’s a hacker considered “a master of the trade amongst his peers.” He even had two operating systems on his computer and used a prompt to issue commands!

Therefore, in January police in Boston had to confiscate his computer, digital camera, modems, printers, scanners, flash drives, DVDs and more because he intended to use them to commit a crime.

It all was based on the word of a roommate who got mad at Boston College student Riccardo Calixte because he thought Calixte had used one of the college’s listservs to spread rumors about him. In case that wasn’t enough to entice police, the roommate also accused Calixte of hacking the university’s grading system and changing grades.

The judge threw out the first: Even if Calixte did do it, using a gmail or Yahoo mail account to post to a listserv is not the crime of obtaining computer services by fraud.

The allegation of grade hacking was not enough to justify the search warrant and seizure either, the judge ruled.

In issuing the ruling last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Court justice ordered the police to give Calixte back his equipment. It’s May. How would you like to be a college student these days, let alone a computer science major, without a computer for most of a semester?

“Our client was targeted because law enforcement was improperly suspicious of our client’s computer skills and misunderstood computer crime laws,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick said in a news release.

She’s right about that. And it’s something that happens all too often these days, though most times it usually doesn’t make it all the way to a state’s highest court.

Part of the problem is that, while it seems as if it’s been around forever based on its omnipresence in our lives today, computer and online technology still are relatively new.

They’re also greatly misunderstood. Someone who knows how to press “control-alt-delete” instantly becomes knowledgeable, and if you can navigate a listserv, you must be the next coming of Bill Gates. Know Linux? You’re evil.

As a result, something that’s no more serious legally than good old-fashionged rumor-mongering is twisted to become sinister because someone allegedly used a computer to do it.

The police, by the way, did do a good job of tracking down this part of the roommate’s story, and it appears to have some merit. But does it rise to the level of a cyber crime? Were a computer not involved, it would rise no higher than tattle-telling. Possibly slander or libel, but those are civil matters. Let the roommate pay for his own investigation.

As far as the accusation that Calixte hacked the college’s grading system, the evidence needed to get a warrant is scant at best. Did investigators check with the college to see if it had been hacked? If they did, did they ask the college for logs or records? If they did any of that, it’s not in the affidavit seeking the warrant.

What it comes down to, then, is one college student mad at a roommate who might have accused him of being gay in a public forum.

Shame on the police for falling victim to fear of cyber voo-doo and making this a criminal case. There are plenty of real cyber thieves out there. Authorities should Stop Wasting America’s Time with personal disputes and instead devote resources to investigating actual crimes.

Know of someone who deserves a SWAT? Click here to make a nomination.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Leslie K. said:

    I am so glad I am not a threat to America….I lost the ability to absorb new technology at MP3 players….

  • Debra said:

    You’re actually ahead of me if you do MP3 players, Leslie.

    There’s one in this house somewhere. It was a Father’s Day present for Dad a few years back when he was in the mood to get in shape and wanted a motivator. We never got around to loading it, and right this second I couldn’t tell you where it is. I guess ultimately a drill sergeant worked better anyway. I will have to track down that thing and figure it out before he’s deployed. It’ll be a lot easier than trying to lug a kajillion CDs halfway around the world.

  • MtnMom said:

    Yikes! All the way through the article I kept thinking “I’m so glad I still don’t know what the heck I’m doing with this thing (computer)!” This episode makes me grateful that I blog and twitter and that’s about it!

    Smiles and love to you and the guys!

  • Vanilla Cokehead said:

    Well put, Debra. Sounds like the cops in Boston got pwned themselves. It’s sad that they were duped so easily.

  • Debra said:

    The weird part was, the policy thoroughly investigated the legally flimsier part of the accusation – the na na na na boo boo, he’s calling me names – but totally glossed over the allegation of grade-changing. Unless there was just so little evidence to support that one they didn’t even bother to try to support it in the affidavit for the warrant.