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Kid’s charged for “hacking” school computers…

Thirteen high school students in Kutztown, Pennsylvania have been criminally charged for “hacking” their high school provided laptops. Some relatives of the teenagers have set up a website to tell their side of the story.

I’ve read the story and some of the comments on Slashdot, and I feel rather concerned.

The kids maybe deserve some disciplining…maybe. The laptops the school provided them were set up to limit what they could do with them. They were told not to circumvent the security. The school put the admin passwords that allowed them to circumvent said security on a piece of tape on the laptops. The kids then installed software that allowed them to get access again when the password was changed in the future.

I’m a computer “hacker”. I don’t do bad things, but I like to see how the computer works. Throughout highschool back in the early ’80s, I was years ahead of anything my teachers knew. I was regularly doing things far outside the normal curriculum- some of it questionable. Things like figuring out how to make the lights on the peripheral sharing hub we had (no networks back in 1981) blink in certain patterns.

Probably the closest I came to being a “bad” hacker was when I was given a career aptitude test on a teletype in 1982. The career counsellor gave me the printout- according to the assessment program, I was too creative for programming and should be an engineer instead. I ignored the advice, but the process bugged me- I distinctly recall the counsellor saying that programming was all mathematics and didn’t have room for much creativity- since I was already a pretty decent programmer at the time, this just didn’t seem rational.

Later that year, after school was out and while I was waiting to go into university, I noticed there was a login password on the printout. I figured out how to log into the data sharing network of the day with my Apple II, and how to log into the school board network, and how to run the career counselling program. I took the test again, trying to figure out how in the name of all that is holy the career program figured that Engineering was more creative than computer programming. I figured out the sequence of questions and answers (it was an Elisa-like model) that reached a particular career determination. My conclusion was that that the people who fed the software data were ignorant. About as ignorant as the educators in the topic story for this post.

I’m pretty sure that, if I found an admin password taped to the back of my school-provided laptop, I’d probably have had an incredibly hard time when I was 18 or so resisting typing it in. I’d want to figure out what kind of security the school had installed, how it worked, and what it was doing. Based on what is happening to these high school kids in the states, if I did that today I’d not only be expelled from high school, but I’d likely be charged with criminal trespass and sent to jail. All because I’m smarter than the teachers, and curious.

That, to me, is a bigger crime than anything the kids in this case might have committed.

12 comments to Kid’s charged for “hacking” school computers…

  • Shane

    Don’t read this Kelly, you won’t agree with one word of it 🙂

    I think the suspension of these brats is more then justified. Being charged with a crime, might be much, but the students won’t do any time, it is just a way to finally make them comply. They will get some detention, probation and at the most, maybe some community service. Which I think is probably the best thing that could happen to these little brats.

    Rules are rules. Break the rules, get caught, pay the penalty. Don’t like the penalty? Simple, don’t break the rule. This is the way the civilized world is supposed to work, we have rules and laws for a reason.

    These kids didn’t care that they were continually breaking rules. Detentions, suspensions, everything the school tried, failed. What else can the school do? Forget about the students being “creative” or whatever people want to call them, they continually broke the rules, rules that they all agreed to with a signature at the beginning of the year!

    They made a decision not to comply with the rules, so when you do this, you should also be aware that their are consequences to your actions. Ignorance of any rules or laws, is not an excuse.

    What is extremely troubling, to me, is that they were using monitoring software to spy on district administrators. ” Spying on adminstrators? That should be more then enough to kick kids out of school for a year. These kids went out of their way to break these rules, going as far as to use cracking programs off the internet so that they could access the administrative password. Harmless fun, Not! I would be more then a little upset if some 15 year old kid went out of his way to spy on my computer. And If I caught the kid, the last thing in the world they would have to worry about is a suspension.

    When I was working, we were all given laptops. If we damaged, them, or circumvented the built in operating system (which was easy to do) and were caught. We were given demerits, anywhere up to 20 demerits per incident. 60 demerits and you were fired, no ifs and or buts. No union in the world can save you once you hit 60 demerits.

    So maybe it is better to teach these brats something about responsibility before they graduate and have to go out into the real world.?

    In my humble opinion, they got what they deserved. No, scratch that, they should have been paddled first, then suspended. Now if they get some community service, I will be a little happier 🙂

  • Shane

    The formatting of my above text, was not intentionally done as to make it nearly unreadable. I use internet explorer, so it probably messed up how it is handled.

  • One thing the school didn’t try. Take the computers away. If for some reason that didn’t work, try suspending the kids. They didn’t: they sent notes to their parents. Seems like a no brainer to me, but apparently going straight from a note to the parents to calling the police, filing criminal charges, and having the kids in jail is easier. Demerits, suspension, sure: time in jail, criminal record? Not. I didn’t notice anything in your response about going to jail if you used your work-provided computer to play Doom…I guess you would have been okay with that?

    As for the kids “monitoring” administrators…there is nothing complex or tricky about that, or particularly “evil”. The schoolboard put software on the laptops so they could monitor the kids remotely. The kids figured out how this worked and used it to do the same thing to the IT administrators.

    If the kids had hacked into some system, deleted/defaced/destroyed files, changed their marks, altered the teacher’s tests- I’d be on the schoolboards side in terms of pressing criminal charges. But what the kids did was roughly equivalent to sneaking into the teacher’s lounge and taking a cup of coffee from the coffee machine, then while you are there poking around in the magazines and stuff lying around on the coffee table.

    As for the formatting- did you hit “return” at the ends of a few lines? The only place you should have to hit return is at the end of a paragraph. I think I fixed it, though

  • Shane

    I will try and put it another way. Let’s think of passwords as “locks”, and locks can of course be broken, worked around etc. we all know this. . Now what if a lock was put on a new gymnasium, and a group of student basketball players, really wanted to play with the new basketball hoops? Now let’s pretend the athletes are as stupid as the kids in the computer class, and they aren’t going to let some pesky contract, and some teacher tell them what to do, so they cut the lock off and they go and play some basketball.

    -So the school gives them a detention and puts a new lock on. The students who “only wanna play basketball and create new moves” then steal a key. and they go play some basketball.
    -So the school sends the parents a note, informing them of the contract, and telling them that it is imperative that they get their children to comply. But the students pick the lock this time.
    -So the school gives them a suspension and puts a new lock on. The students bypass the lock again! Does the school, just keep putting on a new lock till the end of time or do they try and put a stop it? Sounds to me like the school did everything it could, then finally just had enough and let the people who should handle these things (police) handle it.

    How is the crime above, any different from hacking into a vulnerable area of a computer network?

    Kelly said: “”One thing the school didn�t try. Take the computers away. If for some reason that didn�t work, try suspending the kids. They didn�t: they sent notes to their parents. Seems like a no brainer to me, but apparently going straight from a note to the parents to calling the police, filing criminal charges, and having the kids in jail is easier. “”

    They didn’t just send notes. They also tried detentions and suspensions BEFORE they called police.

    Kelly said: “”Demerits, suspension, sure: time in jail, criminal record? Not. I didn�t notice anything in your response about going to jail if you used your work-provided computer to play Doom�I guess you would have been okay with that?””

    Yes I would be very okay with that. How did doom come into this anyways? 🙂 If my employer told me not to use my work computer for Doom, had me sign a contract at the beginning of the year (same as the students) saying that I would not, but I did anyways. And then they were nice enough to keep warning me through demerits and then they finally give me a suspension, hoping that I will smarten up. Now eventually I come back to work, and yet I am such a retard, I continue to play Doom. Do they have a reason to fire me? Bet your arse they do. This is exactly what happened with the kids. They were warned, then given detentions, then notes to parents, then suspensions, then after all that, these kids learned absolutely nothing, so the school had to call in for help. That help was in the form of law enforcement.

    Kelly said: “”As for the kids �monitoring� administrators�there is nothing complex or tricky about that, or particularly �evil�. The schoolboard put software on the laptops so they could monitor the kids remotely. The kids figured out how this worked and used it to do the same thing to the IT administrators. “”

    I have no idea if it is complex or tricky, but that is totally besides the point. It is not complex or tricky to break a lock and walk into someones house, yet this is against the law. The students signed a contract, and agreed to play by the rules. They decided not to.

    These parents and kids that whine about this, are the exact same parents who would turn around and sue the school because little Jimmy or Susie saw pornography on the school’s computer. Just because the school had nothing to do with putting the pornography on the internet, and nothing to do with the kids using programs to hack it, it would be the school’s responsibility and there would be lawsuits everywhere (probably already is regarding this case).

    Kelly said: “”If the kids had hacked into some system, deleted/defaced/destroyed files, changed their marks, altered the teacher�s tests- I�d be on the schoolboards side in terms of pressing criminal charges. But what the kids did was roughly equivalent to sneaking into the teacher�s lounge and taking a cup of coffee from the coffee machine, then while you are there poking around in the magazines and stuff lying around on the coffee table.””

    Sure, what they did was minor, but the fact is, they did it over and over and over again. If you had a child that kept tipping over a table, knocking things off, causing you a minor inconvenience, but did it all the time, wouldn’t you finally discipline the child? And if all that discipline failed, what would you do? And spying on someone on their computer, in my opinion is a heck of a lot worse then poking around magazines and stealing a cup of coffee.

  • Shane

    I just want to elaborate on my 5th paragraph that starts with “Yes I would be very okay with that.”
    If, what I was doing on my work’s computer, was construed as illegal , and my employer finally went to the autorities, of course I would be ok with that, and at the very least, after continual warnings, I should be fired. Unfortunately you can’t fire kids from school.

  • Shane

    Just re-reading the school’s view on this
    http://www.kasd.org/districtinfo/kasdPressrelease.htm

    “”Unfortunately, after repeated warnings and disciplinary actions, a few students continued to misuse the school-issued laptops to varying degrees. The disciplinary actions included detentions, in-school suspensions, loss of Internet access, and loss of computer privileges. After each disciplinary action, parents received either written notification or telephone calls. Some parents felt that the disciplinary actions were ridiculous and even expressed the feeling that their son/daughter should be able to do non-school activities and use the laptop without restrictions. Some students acknowledged that they used their school-issued laptop inappropriately at home rather than their home computer for fear their parent would catch them””

    The parents AND students were given ample chances and warnings prior to the police finally being called.

    And as far as the kids “just playing” here is what the school had to say about it.

    “”The district has incurred many hours of technician time in returning the misused laptops to their original images. This additional time meant additional technician hours and less technology coordinator time spent in high school classrooms and in the other five district buildings. “”

    Are the parents going to pick up the tab for the technicians time?

  • I don’t see what the students did as “worthy” of criminal charges. The machines were locked down to prevent them from installing any programs- they couldn’t even install educational software. The kids were “disciplined” but, since they still had their laptops to hack, obviously they laptops hadn’t been taken away. Since they were served arrest notices in school, obviously they hadn’t been suspended for any real period of time.

    I see a school district and teachers who want little robots who do nothing but parrot what the books say, who only think the “right” thoughts, and who have no curiosity. I see the type of teacher who tells a student who asks a question that contradicts what is in the book to sit down and shut up. I see educators afraid of anyone who challenges them and their authority.

    The school district got suckered into a contract with Apple that cost them millions to provide laptops (why do kids need laptops), and they promised that they would keep these machines secure and “safe”. Instead they probably should have had desktop computers in the school and subsidies for parents to buy their kids their own machines. Now the school board is trying to cover their butts and avoid looking stupid for saying they’d do something that wasn’t practical to begin with (I.E.: issue high school students ‘free’ laptops to take home, but somehow keep them identical and pristine).

    A good school and good teachers would have done a better job disciplining the kids before invoking the legal recourse- I ask again, why the heck did the kids *still* have laptops once they had broken the rules repeatedly? Why were they *still* in class if they were such dangerous criminals? Good educators/technologists would have had a simple boot image to reformat the drive and install the standard image (takes 30 minutes without human intervention). They would have had courses where kids would be encouraged to build new programs and try new things. If they broke their config, they would have been required to restore it to original operating condition with the boot image themselves. They would have had sessions on security and computer ethics.

    I got the job I have today because I experimented with computers when I was young. I broke the machines I don’t know how many times, and fixed them all. I learned far more than anyone could without having gone through this process. My teachers encouraged me to try new things, to explain what I did, to write up papers on my work. I’m absolutely certain that my questioning of the accepted truth would have gotten me expelled from the school district in question here. Just to learn something new that wasn’t in the curriculum, I’d have to break the rules. That’s stupid. There is direct cause and effect. People who open a book and do exactly what it says, then close that book and turn off their computer, never learn anything tangible.

    By the way, Doom came into it because the kids originally “broke the law” to install instant messaging software and a few games. Not much different than an employee installing “Doom” on their work laptop.

    Unlike you, I actually deal with “script kiddies” and “bad” hackers every day. I have a real reason to dislike them and what they do. But I don’t see what these students did in the same light as that at all. A script kiddie has no intent but to damage and destroy. These students were not destructively messing with their computers or the schoolboard. Yes, they broke rules, but again- I think the schoolboard was out of line with their “call the cops” response.

    Unlike a work environment, students are *supposed* to be learning, not just performing a strictly structured task. But even in a work environment, installing an “unauthorized” program or violating security rules might get you fired- it won’t get you a criminal record.

    You see irritating hackers and script kiddies. I see kids *given* machines that can do all sorts of neat things, but restricted from doing *anything* not approved by the schoolboard. The fact that the students spent some energy figuring out ways around those restrictions isn’t surprising to me at all and, without destructive intent or result, is not a crime. We agree to disagree 😉

  • Chris

    I agree that the school board is covering it’s but and that the actions involved are probably not “criminal”, but I also see the school board as stuck between a rock and a hard place… ( yes, they probably willingly put themselves there, but that still doesn’t make it easier to get out of the predicament.)

    They probably have their curriculum set up so that students need to have these computers… removing the computers is not an option unless they intend to expell the students ( why didn’t thye? good question.) On the other hand, if they did nothing, and let the kids continue to do stuff with their laptops then what happens? Apple takes away all the computers? Their jobs are grass and with the rewriting of curriculum and extra expense a lot of kids educations are toast as well. The school board gets a nice lawsuit from the music industry for helping “steal” music, and spends half it’s funds on lawyers. Some kid gets molested or killed by some predator they met in a chat room… who will get blamed? Not the parents, not the kid, but the school.

    You have some kids that even after repeated warnings aren’t playing by the rules, you have parents that don’t listen ( but will be the first to scream if something bad happens to little jhonny or little suzy.) To save the computers for the majority that are following the rules, the school board decided they had to take drastic action.

    ( Again, why they didn’t just expell the students is a good question… this is from a country that has expelled 6 year olds from hugging classmates to enforce a zero tolerance sexual harassment policy!)

    The school should have thought about all this before they got the computers, but once they had them… their options are limited. As I say, short of expulsion, which for some reason wasn’t used, they seem to have tried everything they could. Criminal charges perhaps are out of line, but I also don’t think these kids are motivated by simple curiosity and a desire to learn how their machines work. The ones that have continued to break the rules, even after being suspended ( sure it might be a stupid suspension… but you and I and our parents would have found us a different school, not just decided it was “stupid” so we ignore it. ) These are kids / parents that cannot or will not get the point. They think that the rules don’t apply to them (stupid or not) and that they only have to follow ones they like and approve of. That the proper response to a rule you don’t like is to ignore it… not to fight to change it, not to leave in protest, but to just saw “screw it.” You say they had no bad intent, but without detailed information we don’t know that… I can say that anyone that persists in ingnoring repeated warnings including suspensions certainly is intent on something, even if it is only intent on being stupid. But I suspect that the hard core cases were NOT perfectly harmless. You empathize with the kids because you seem them as like you were at that age… well remember, I knew you at that age 😉 I’m pretty sure they aren’t like you.

    ( Which raises the question: Did the tech incompetent school admin actually tareget the right kids? Or just the easy to find ones? )

    I pretty sure that the schools call the cops approach isn’t going to fix anything and will probably make it worse… but I’m not ready to call all the kids as “harmless” and tar and feather the the school based on what little we know either.

  • Chris

    P.S. I’m commenting on this category as much to make sure the post that generates the most discussion isn’t about babes in beauty contenst as because I have something to say. 😉 😀

  • Shane

    “”A good school and good teachers would have done a better job disciplining the kids””

    Umm. yeah detentions, suspensions, notices to parents, the school sucks, they didn’t do anything to discipline the kids!!

    As usual you are completely right and i am 100% wrong.

    Next time, just delete anything someone posts that you disagree with, will save everyone a lot of time.

    peace out.

  • Chris, yeah, the “harmless” label is not one I’d apply to the kids. I’d say they are somewhere between “harmless” and “script kiddies”…and script kiddies are below “virus/malware writers” and their ilk The primary differentiator in my mind is intent and activity to cause harm: the students in this case were not defacing or damaging systems like script kiddies (who are random vandals), and random vandals aren’t trying to thieve/cause irreparable damage like virus writers.

    I also think you are on the right track regarding the school getting itself caught in a situation they can’t figure out how to get out of. My question earlier (which Shane cut part out of for his quote) was…

    “A good school and good teachers would have done a better job disciplining the kids before invoking the legal recourse- I ask again, why the heck did the kids *still* have laptops once they had broken the rules repeatedly? Why were they *still* in class if they were such dangerous criminals?”

    I think the school feels they *can’t* do the reasonable thing (take the laptops away). Why they can’t permanently suspend the kids and force them to go to another school, I don’t know. Calling the cops…well, that was almost certainly an act of desperation by people who had boxed themselves into a political corner.

    I also sort of think there is something else going on here possibly regarding the parents. I noticed some news reports on one site from a couple of years ago when the schoolboard in question initially floated the idea of buying iBooks for the students. A number of parents were basically saying it was a dumb idea, the money could be better spent on books or supportive funding for the families to buy their own computers.

    I still think that criminal charges are unreasonable. And I firmly believe that the fact that I was provided an environment in highschool computing that encouraged me to experiment and explore was critically important to me. Would I have done the same thing these kids did? Probably not to the same extent. But I can definitely see myself:

    • typing in an admin password taped to the back of the computer
    • trying to guess/guessing the admin password (which was the school’s address)
    • using the remote control software on my machine installed by the administrators to take over someone elses machine…for example, the administrator’s machine (which should have been password protected/locked)
    • trying to figure out how to install software that the machine didn’t come with, particularly communications programs like instant messaging software
    • writing programs/exploring the computer’s configuration to figure out what it was that the administrators were running and what types of things they were capturing / monitoring
    • trying out the programs/tools the administrators had installed and seeing what neat things I could do with them (see “using remote control software” above)

    For myself, personally, I likely would have stopped after the first warning. More likely than not, I would have taken the laptop back to the school and said “keep it, I’m buying my own” and gone out and bought my own- I wasn’t rich, I just worked a part time job to earn my own money and, unlike most kids, spent nearly every penny on computers. If they forced me to use it, I’d do the absolute minimum with the thing, and I’d probably make it clear to the teachers and administrators that the locked down computer was a total waste of my time that trivialized its educational value.

    Now: would the school board have called the cops on me? I don’t know: my likely behavior would have differed from the “Kutztown 13”, but I think the undertone in my behavior would have been similar. And I think its that “attitude” that the schoolboard resents and which may have been behind their calling the cops, moreso than the actions of the students themselves.

  • Chris

    I think this is what nags at me in this case, for all that it comes across as a bunch of anal retentative authoritarians gone bezerk:

    “For myself, personally, I likely would have stopped after the first warning. More likely than not, I would have taken the laptop back to the school and said “keep it, ”

    Even assuming the worst of the school with you or me, it’s hard to see how things could have escalated to this level. The kids, or their parents, must be playing a part in adding fuel to the fire. And it just speaks of a generally confrontational approach to problems that is unproductive, even dangerous.

    It smakes of the “no compromise – no retreat” approach taken to foreign policy by the Bush regime for example… an approach that I for one think has caused more problems than it has solved. What is disturbing to me is that incidinces like this seem to show that this isn’t an anomalous way of doing things, and that it is becoming more of a cultural norm.

    In simple terms I suspect that if either you or I were stuck dealing with these kids and their parents … or the school board, we would after a short time would want to throttle the self serving idiots. Stories like this worry me because it reminds me how many such “difficult” people there are out there.

    ( I of course am perfect! 😉 )

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