Will Somebody Please Do Something About Boston?

What the heck is going on in Boston? Apologies to any Bostonians in the audience, but something is in the water, at least in the education and law enforcement districts. Once again, the "Cradle of Liberty" is in the news as the Defenders of the Fourth are forced to rush in to defend the baby against the hand that rocks the cradle.

Last August, Boston made big news, at least in tech circles, when representatives of the city's transportation system rushed into federal court at the last moment — on a Saturday, no less — an made an ex parte petition for an injunction to prevent three MIT students from presenting their research into flaws in the city's Charlie Card system at DefCon 2008. As it usually goes in these cases, the judge on weekend duty at the federal courthouse opted to exercise prior restraint in blatant disregard of the First Amendment rather than electing for something more temperate — and legally justified — like holding a hearing where the accused could present a defense and cross-examine their accusers — you know, the general American adversarial system that has worked for more than two hundred years now. A second federal judge — after waffling like an Eggo salesman — eventually vacated the injunction, finding that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's petition lacked legal merit, and — though professional courtesy prevents saying so unless you're an appellate court — that the injunction never should have been issued in the first place.

Obviously, someone wasn't paying attention, because the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil liberties organizations are now rushing to the assistance of a Boston College student whose dormitory room was raided by campus police, who seized a number of computers and other technology, including his iPod and cell phone. They've now turned the items over to the Massachusetts State Police, who are performing forensic analysis on the items.

So, what horrible crime led police to conduct this imitation Inquisition? Someone sent an anonymous email to a campus email list saying — wait for it — that another student was gay.




Now, first off, being gay isn't a crime, and neither is saying someone else is. Even if it's untrue — and we have no clue, we're not in the social scene at BC — it is, at the very worst, a slanderous (or libelous) utterance, a civil offense over which the police have no jurisdiction and into which they are prohibited from intervening. How, then, have they justified — as though anybody bothers to justify anything before they do it anymore — their actions? The same way the MBTA did, of course: the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the catch-all law for anyone who wants to concoct a computer crime without the trouble of contacting Congress.

Apparently this young man — who was a computer science student, no less — is guilty of "obtaining computer services by fraud or misrepresentation" and obtaining "unauthorized access to a computer system" — by sending an email. Now, this either says something incredibly bad about the police — and it does — or about the IT department at Boston College. Either the police are so poorly educated in the laws they are supposed to have sworn to uphold that they can't tell the difference between cracking boxes at the DOD and sending an email, or, if sending an anonymous email to the campus listserv is really "unauthorized access" obtained by "misrepresentation," then the IT Department at Boston College is so utterly inept that they can't figure out how to moderate a simple email list.

Just what did these valiant enforcers of the law list as probable cause for seizing this equipment? The student was observed with a number of laptops he was supposedly repairing for others, he has multiple logins for his computers, and he uses a strange operating system with a black screen and white text, and when using this operating system, which isn't the "regular B.C. operating system," he types bizarre "prompt commands" into it. Good God, if that's all it takes to be guilty of violating the CFAA, then they'd better start building more prisons, because there's a heck of a lot of us to lock away.

So now, the student's computers are sitting in the police crime lab, presumably to be forensically analyzed by the same people who can't tell a cracker from Grandma sending her holiday snaps, the student has been suspended from his job, and he no longer has access to the equipment necessary to do his coursework. The poor kid doesn't even have his iPod or cell phone — which have what to do with the non-criminal act of sending an email?

Thankfully, the EFF have filed a motion to quash the search warrant[PDF], as beautifully worded as it was, petitioning to have his property immediately returned to him and to enjoin the police from making any further searches or undertaking additional analysis of his data. With any luck, as soon as the court has granted the motion — and they will, eventually, even if it has to be done by order of the federal courts — the EFF will turn around and bring suit on the young man's behalf, seeking damages against the college, the campus police, the Massachusetts State Police, and anybody else who assisted in this Constitutional clusterbuster. Perhaps then, eventually, these "Guardians of Liberty" will begin to remember what Boston used to be about — and what happens when you run roughshod over the people's rights.

Continuing coverage of this case can be found on the EFF's website at In re: matter of search warrant (Boston College).

Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.


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As Richard Stallman put it...

Anonymous's picture

I just happened on this article, thought I'd share. (yes, I think it has something to do with this one!)www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html

Can someone please do something about bad reporting at LJ?

Anonymous's picture


This is poor reporting of the first order.

The suspect was accused of changing grades!!! That's unauthorized access and fraud. Both criminal. They had every right to take everything listed. EFF's efforts on this are a waist of money.

Why would Justin Ryan skip the first listed and most relevant charge in the warrant? Agenda?

Somebody missed something

D-cat's picture

According to another article I have read, this kid was employed by the BC IT department. He has means and opportunity to send the mail (which so does anybody else with an Internet connection and knows what an Anonymous Remailer is), but I'm fail to see a motive...

Not that sending the e-mail itself was a crime, as pointed out. The crime was unlawful access to the system. As asinine as that argument is for sending an e-mail to a listserv, if he was indeed employed by the IT department, then he has legal access to admin network functions anyway, the case has absolutely zero merit.


Algot Runeman's picture

Maybe it was a reference to the IT joke, but the handwritten part of the warrant says police should collect, among other items, "all manuels".

Boston's ongoing war on tech and common sense

Syskoll's picture

I am surprised that nobody mentioned the Great 2007 Boston Bomb Scare. Remember that one? It started with an LED toy promoting the cartoon "Aqua Teen Hunger Force". It has blinking lights, so of course it has to be a bomb, right? To quote Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley:

"It had a very sinister appearance. It had a battery behind it, and wires."

This was already a proof that Boston is at war with technology, decency and common sense. This last affair confirm that this once glorious city is becoming a superstitious cluster of over-reacting fools.


"Boston is a hotbed of

Tony Lawrence's picture

"Boston is a hotbed of Liberal thought and action"

Yeah - and some of us appreciate that and are proud of it.

As to taxes - I can always make more money, but it's a lot harder to get back freedoms that conservatives take from us.

I don't know what the truth of this is. It's a bit funny to read the description of that "black screen" but if the kid was black hat hacking, it's not an EFF issue. If he wasn't, then ignorant cops over-reacted.

Again, I don't know what's behind the "gay" stuff. If the other kid is openly gay and this kid just said so, yeah, no harm, no foul.

But just this week up in Gloucester we had a case where a gay man was beaten very severely, perhaps because a bunch of macho yahoos didn't like his sexual orientation (I say "perhaps" because that case is still being investigated). It's not always safe to be gay, even in MA where so many of us are horrible card-carrying ACLU liberals. If that student was living under the radar, outing him could have serious consequences.

The cops where did what?

Anonymous's picture

I for one support the efforts of dedicated police officers such as those of <strike>Boston</strike> Keystone, MA.

Read the text of the warrant. READ it, don't just peruse it.

Anonymous's picture

The student is charged with a number of crimes and by any reasonable account the seizure of at least his computer was entirely justified.

Well no, that would be

Anonymous's picture

Well no, that would be wrong, because that would require some care, thought, and accurate reporting, all of which are forbidden here.

Peruse means to read

Anonymous's picture

Peruse means to read thoroughly. Please peruse a dictionary.

Unfortuanately for the student...

Kaboodle's picture

In the meantime the police will of course find "infringing" files on his computer that will be something along the lines of downloaded TV shows, songs, japanese manga depicting questionably aged characters in adult situations, and these things will flare up in the news, and the kid's life and reputation will be marred forever, even if the "evidence" is thrown out due to illegal search and seizure. Sucks for that kid.

Not reported by probably relevant:

Epicanis's picture

No doubt some of these "computers" had blinking lights, which as we all know is a sure sign of an "infernal device". Obviously, some sinister and nefarious plan was afoot. Hopefully some time in the stocks will do induce this miscreant to disavow his evil ways.

They still do that in Boston, right?...

Not that surprising to those of us who live nearby...

rickb928's picture

Boston is a hotbed of Liberal thought and action. Not only the capitol of the state of Massachusetts, home state of Senators Teddy Kennedy and John Kerry, but the home of Harvard and other bastions of liberal persuasion.

Affectionately known as 'Taxachusetts' by neighboring states, most Mass. politicians never met a tax of fee they didn't like.

And the MTA, bless it, is reknown as a haven for hacks and hangers-on, generally referred to as 'Charleys'. Competence is never necessary to run or manage the MTA, just good political connections. Read the Globe, or any local fishwrap, for a while, and you'll find regular allegations of corruption on a grand scale rarely practiced outside of Chicago.

Boston College, sadly, is becoming indistiguishable from Harvard, and it's no suprise they are so intellectually deficient that they made the statements they did regarding this student, and no doubt are challenged to run any of many listservs to permit people to post anonymously, but still be able to suppress objectionable content. As if stating that another individual is 'gay' could be considered objectionable...

Despite my familarity with Boston, I'm a little taken aback by the intention to hold this student somehow to blame for any harm in stating something that is likely both factual and generally accepted in society currently. of course, at B.C., being 'gay' may not be a fashionable as it is in Cambridge Square, but it isn't grounds for expulsion.

Sad. I may have to send some money to EFF.