(BC, from Flickr user glemak)
Here’s a strange one care of EFF and Universal Hub:
On March 30th a Boston College student had all of his electronic equipment (including his computers, iPod, hard drives, digital camera, and cell phone) seized by BCPD, under allegations that the gadgets are “evidence of a crime or … of criminal activity” and/or “intended for use or … used in the commission of a crime.” The crime appears to be “unlawful access to a computer system” (MGL Ch. 266 § 120F), to wit, creating a fictitious account for a peer at gay dating/hookup site Adam4Adam.com and sending an email to a listserv “outing” that peer, accessing BC records and changing grades, downloading music and movies, and allegedly jailbreaking a cell phone.
As EFF notes, the peculiar thing about this complaint is the way in which the officer attempts to establish probable cause for the warrant. Not only are the allegations primarily coming from one roommate, who recently got into a fight with the suspect, but the “suspicious behavior” the warrant (PDF) cites includes:
- being a computer science major
- working in the school’s IT department
- fixing friends’ laptops
- writing commands from a terminal prompt on a Linux machine
By that level of cause, I think at least four or five of my friends act with sufficient suspicion to warrant seizure of all their electronic devices.
Now it is entirely possible that the suspect here is using a series of ghost devices and networks of computers to trick the BC network into accessing grades or covering up unlawful activity, and if the allegations are true they demonstrate an outright terrible and crass sense of humor, and profoundly poor judgment. But it’s important to look beyond the crime alleged and see how this warrant came to be executed. Generally, we expect law enforcement to come up with a little more PC than just this. (In all fairness, the detective does also note that he was investigated for a previous computer theft, but never charged, and the same witness accusing the suspect here accused the suspect there.) To issue a warrant on only the use of terminal commands and a statement made by a known enemy of the suspect makes virtually all ill-tempered computer geeks ripe for investigation. The one area where the suspect’s IP was accurately traced was the listserv posting of a faux Adam4Adam.com ad. Lucky for the suspect ignorant, homophobic jokes aren’t against the law.
This also makes one wonder if the RIAA will try and get in on the action here. If the informant is to be believed, the suspect probably has a cache of music and movies on his computer. I’m sure the RIAA would love to pressure the Middlesex DA into making a case out of those files. I’ll need an expert in Criminal Procedure to let me know how possible this scenario is. The search warrant is certainly open enough as to suggest it is looking for any and all illegal digital activity. Or perhaps Apple will try and make a criminal case of the jailbroken phones (if it was, in fact, his iPod Touch that was hacked).
For copies of the warrant and other court documents, visit EFF’s case page. EFF is joined by ace tech & IP law firm Fish & Richardson in filing an emergency motion to quash the warrant (PDF), arguing a failure to establish probable cause, that several of the allegedly unlawful actions are in fact lawful, and the seizure of all of his electronic devices constitutes irreperable harm by denying him of his employment (fixing computers) and cutting off his means of communication. This is going to be an interesting case, and I’ll keep posting updates here as I uncover them.