The Crime Here Is ‘Flagrant Ignorance’

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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor do my opinions represent that of Harvard Law or Harvard University. What I am is a technologist. A very outraged technologist. As a result, some of what follows may be a bit snide. I can’t apologize just yet for that. Past the outrage, I’m thanking the high heavens for the EFF who are tackling the cause of my outrage.

Across town somewhere detective Kevin Christopher contends that his warrant to seize from Boston College student Riccardo Calixte anything “capable of storing digital data in any form” is justified because… well, mostly because he’s been told that Calixte is really good with computers. That can’t be good, right? The laundry list of things to be seized from this “master of his trade” (my, how horrific…) included such cutting edge technology as “zip drive disks”, “optical scanners”, “manuels (sic)” and “firewalls”. The EFF’s motion to quash was denied in District Court (I was quite surprised by this, actually), but that just means that now the Superior Court will have to hear it and, sorry BCPD, that’s even worse for you as it means more publicity.

According to Calixte, the confiscated items also included the Post-it he was writing on at the time to document what was happening. But that’s hearsay, right? Well, much of the ‘evidence’ which led to all this is hearsay as well. And a great deal of what is proffered as ’cause’ is, quite simply, not illegal and/or not tied to any criminal complaint. Specifically:

  • Performing “jail breaks” on a cell phone is not inherently illegal.
  • Calling someone a “hacker” doesn’t make them a criminal.
  • A computer science student who is considered “a master of the trade” is, presumably, the university’s goal (!) Isn’t that why he’s in school? Is a master carpenter also a nefarious n’er-do-well in the eyes of the police?
  • Using more than one operating system doesn’t make you suspicious… it makes you a typical computer science student and, in my book, a fellow traveler (see what I did there?).
  • Sending an email that is libelous or slanderous is a civil issue, not a criminal one. This is a criminal case you’re building.
  • Even if that message was sent anonymously, is that really cause for all this posturing? If the note were stapled to a public bulletin board, would there be some sort of criminal ‘fraud’ investigation? (Fraud? Seriously? That’s your angle? You’re going the ‘MySpace Mom’ route to nail some kid for being a jerk?)
  • If the person in question has supposedly, according to your single source in this un-related ‘crime’ who is also the aggrieved party, downloaded music and/or movies illegally, that’s a civil issue (he’s not being charged or even accused of trafficking, is he?).
  • He’s alleged to have, according to your aggrieved single source in this un-related issue, gotten into the university computers and changed grades — with no evidence whatsoever to support the allegation other than ‘some guy said’ and no inkling of validity from the university whose name is on your badge whether such a crime even exists.
  • And finally, although there are many more such idiotic instances in the documentation that I could go on about, the accused is supposed to have ‘fixed’ other peoples’ computers so that they can’t be scanned by police later for evidence. Can’t detective Christopher call someone in law enforcement (or the closest 14 year old) before putting that in official documents and making himself look even more technologically clueless? Call, for the love of Pete, if for no other reason than to give the computer forensics guys a good laugh at this fantastical magic trick some B.C. student has created despite the incredible improbability of it all.

I’m not saying that I think the Calixte is guilty or is not guilty of the original ‘crime’ (of sending an anonymous email that defamed someone). What I’m saying is “This whole railroading incident reeks of authoritarianism and I don’t want this to happen to me”, detective Christopher. It’s bad policing and it’s worse public policy. You’re setting precedents that could end up making a lot more ‘criminials’ out of otherwise innocent citizens. I use more than two operating systems, including the very much maligned and demonized by the ignorance of this officer, Ubuntu Linux. Am I suspicious now? In fact, our entire back-end infrastructure here runs on this apparently ‘evil’ Linux distro. Detective Christopher’s characterization of it as ‘rare’, much less somehow nefarious in nature, doesn’t hold water, especially on a college campus. In fact, Dell, maker of the frightening “white cover with gray trim” computer seized from the student, offers Ubuntu Linux as an option on many of its machines (and FreeDOS? “Free” DOS? What is this… communist Russia? *gasp*!). A fact any idiot with access to the Internet could suss out in about one minute. Two minutes, tops, if the Dell site is slow. Well, my dad has three sorts of hammers. You better lock him up now for being a seditious carpenter.

Had this been somehow related to mental health, a medical professional would no doubt have been consulted. If an airplane were involved, the FAA or NTSB. If a car were involved, at the very least I’m sure a mechanic would have been consulted. But in this case, detective Christopher seems to think he has a handle on this whole ‘computer’ thing, I assume because he’s touched one and watches television. But anything that’s not in his very narrow technological worldview is seen as suspicious and dark and must be made for nogoodniks. As a result, his cluelessness and inexperience in regards to computer crime is clearly and loudly spelled out in both the warrant and the supporting documentation surrounding the seizure of the student’s property. It’s jack-booted over-kill and it’s the kind of thing we need to stamp out; we can’t just wait until luddites like Christopher die off and are replaced by people who grew up with higher technology. We have to handle this now.

Christopher didn’t know what he was doing and he just did what he wanted because he felt he had the authority. It’s almost like something out of a bad movie (oh, wait, it is…). And to compound the thick-headedness of it all, he actually got a warrant for his flimsy excuse of a ‘probable cause’, thereby extending the trail of incompetence back to the magistrate’s office as well.

If Calixte has done something wrong, he needs to atone for it. But in proportion to the wrong and with law enforcement maintaining the high road of principle and justice. We can’t allow this in our society. This sort of “well meaning” overstepping of authority has no place in the republic that our laws provide for. Used like this, they become the tools of fascism and authoritarianism and that sort of thinking has no business whatsoever in Americas justice, much less a college police unit.

There’s a saying about pointing out a problem but offering no solution. Well, I hereby proffer up the attention of myself or my group (and the promise to enlist others) to help explain or demystify the technology and/or culture surrounding computing and the digital age when needed. Especially if it will help keep travesties like this one from happening. I don’t want to have my house raided because someone doesn’t understand the ‘magic’ of my trade and, scared by it, runs off to get the pitchforks and torches.

If you feel the same, I urge you to donate to the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) — You never know when you might need them — and also to explain to others why this sort of thing isn’t keeping them safe, it’ just moving each of us closer to ‘criminal’ and polluting justice with ignorance.

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