• United States

Nipping computer crime in the bud

Mar 03, 20034 mins

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. – A sixth-grader accused of changing his marks on a teacher’s computer said he needed better grades to get his father to let him play computer games at home again. The 11-year-old used his teacher’s electronic grade book to turn a few 40s on reading assignments into 80s. A password was required, but teacher Susan Seal had logged on and walked away. . . . [The boy] was booked Monday at the St. Lucie County jail on a felony intellectual property charge. . . . Prosecutor Ellen Mancini said the boy was unlikely to get jail time.–, Feb. 16, 2003

You’ve just got to love stories like that. Here we have a kid doing the sort of stupid thing that kids do, and his school and the district attorney’s office are treating it as a felony!

So what is a felony? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a felony is “a grave crime . . . for which the punishment in federal law may be death or imprisonment for more than one year.”

Wow. But what’s odd is that the child’s deed doesn’t match any intellectual property crime I can identify. Check out the Quick Reference Sheet of Felony Charges to Consider and Relevant Issues to Consider in Typical Intellectual Property Cases from The Computer Crime and Intellectual Property section of the Department of Justice. Can you find anything in that document that is relevant to the “crime” in question?

And what intellectual property was involved? Or is this one of those peculiar legal things? Whichever way you look at it, the charge is questionable. So why was this foolish act elevated to such a remarkable level?

I only can assume that it is, once again, the knee-jerk response to computer crime. The problem is that computer crime is a huge catchall that covers electronic fraud, software cracking, illegal software and digital media distribution, hacking and just about any other crime that could be thrown into the pot, whether or not it is truly computer-related.

Society, in general, and the media and government, in particular, have created a crisis out of any event that can be classified as computer crime. The truth is the majority of these events are simply vandalism and petty theft.

I think we can all agree that what the kid did was stupid, but arguably what the teacher did was even dumber! She logged on to a supervisory account that provided access to privileged information she had a responsibility to protect, and she wandered away, leaving the PC open to anyone.

But is the teacher being punished for negligence? I doubt it. Is the school being criticized or prosecuted for its poor data-management practices and lack of effective privacy safeguards? Unlikely. But let’s make an example of one little boy. Good idea.

This sounds a lot like the ridiculous and damaging zero-tolerance policies in schools regarding drugs and firearms, where children have been suspended for bringing things to school such as key fobs shaped like miniature guns or candies that the teaching staff didn’t recognize (I’m not making this up – see This is True’s Losing my Tolerance for Zero Tolerance section).

So I wonder, were any of the adults involved thinking or were they just reacting? According to reports, Helen Roberts, the principal of the school involved, St. Lucie West Middle School in Florida (read the whole story), will recommend that the boy be expelled! Thank heavens he wasn’t writing rude words on the bathroom wall, otherwise she’d probably be having him taken out to the playground and shot.

I am definitely in favor of treating computer crime seriously, but I’m also in favor of keeping things in perspective. Treating a child’s foolish actions as a felony just because a politically hot issue is involved is insane.

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Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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