Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101

Sara Peters, Editor in Chief | 1/28/2013 | 53 comments

Sara Peters
Computer Security Law 101 should be a mandatory course for all freshman computer science majors. Save the advanced programming classes for sophomore year. Otherwise, these promising students may use their new skills to break the law -- without even knowing they're doing it.

These aren't small transgressions like driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. These aren't mere civil suits. These are felony charges. We're not talking about small fines. We're talking about fines that add up to tens of thousands of dollars. We're not talking about community service. We're talking about incarceration. And we're not talking about 30 days in jail. We're talking about 30 years in prison.

Sometimes the people charged with these crimes have no idea they are committing a crime. Others know but don't fully understand or appreciate the severity of the punishments they could face.

There are several striking examples of this -- Gary McKinnon, Eric McCarty, and Daniel Cuthbert, for starters. More recently, a Canadian computer science student was expelled for actions he took after discovering a vulnerability in software the school was using.

Just a few weeks ago, Aaron Swartz -- the young IT genius charged with illegally accessing JSTOR, MIT's subscription-only database of scientific and literary journals -- committed suicide. Some of Swartz's friends and family have said the prosecuting attorneys' harsh treatment drove Swartz, who had long suffered with depression, to take his own life. From a New York Times report:

In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, [Swartz] broke into computer networks at M.I.T. by means that included gaining entry to a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university network under a false account, federal officials said.
Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, a United States attorney, pressed on, saying that "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars."

The US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has established severe punishments for computer-related crimes. In my personal opinion, the text of the law and the way it is enforced show that legislators and the judicial system woefully misunderstand computers, information security, and cybercrime. Although Swartz's alleged actions were clearly intentional, not accidental, the potential punishments -- millions of dollars in fines and/or up to 35 years in prison -- seem vastly out of proportion with the nature of the crime.

But like it or not, that's the law as it stands now. Maybe universities' computer science departments can't easily change the law, but they can certainly teach their students about it.

Breaking the law isn't the only danger that IT security researchers must avoid. Corporate and university policies can also get them into trouble. Dawson College in Montreal expelled Ahmed Al-Khabaz for violating the computer science department's code of professional conduct.

While trying to develop a mobile app that would let Dawson students access their academic records, Al-Khabaz discovered a vulnerability in the university's software. When he reported the vulnerability to the school, he was told it would be fixed. A month later, he checked to see if it had been repaired. Here's where he really got himself in trouble -- as the expulsion letter describes it, he "attempted to gain unauthorized access to College and external information systems and injected SQL code, a clear violation of the Dawson IT policy."

Al-Khabaz admitted to both of these intrusions. Two weeks later, the computer science department recommended that he be expelled for not exhibiting behavior appropriate to the computer science profession.

The computer science code's definition of "inappropriate behavior" is very broad -- so broad that I'm amazed any undergraduate students ever make it to graduation. The code bars "display of deportment or habits (for example personal hygiene) outside the normally accepted standards in the work place," along with "continual rudeness." (I'm sad to say that, at some businesses, continual rudeness seems to be essential to success.)

Al-Khabaz told the National Post last week:

I was acing all of my classes, but now I have zeros across the board. I can't get into any other college because of these grades, and my permanent record shows that I was expelled for unprofessional conduct. I really want this degree, and now I won't be able to get it. My academic career is completely ruined.

Giving students the skills to probe the security of computer systems without at least making them aware of the risks is tantamount to teaching kids to drive without telling them that they have to stop at red lights. It's past time for professors and IT leaders to take responsibility for educating our youth about computer security law. All the STEM programs in the world aren't going to help us create the IT professionals of the future if those talented young people end up scared off, in prison, or worse.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 6   >   >>
Susan Nunziata   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/4/2013 3:19:16 PM
Re: Degrees of severity
@vnewman: yes, i do. I think there are lots of shades of gray here (and I'm not referring to that silly series of novels). I think the choices students (or anyone) makes about how they use the information they've gained should be taken into consideration. If one student hacker happens to find a loophole but does nothing nefarious with the information but in fact reports it to the correct authorities, that person should not be subject to the same level of punishment as someone who spots the loophole and sells the information to identity theives.
vnewman   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/3/2013 7:47:28 PM
Re: overboard?
@Joe - but I think there are degrees of severity - like the punishment for breaking into someone's house isn't the same as breaking in and murdering everyone in it.  I'm sort of playing devil's advocate but you see my point, no?
stotheco   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/3/2013 11:34:08 AM
Re: Degrees of severity
Not just maybe. I think they really should have considered what was done with the obtained data. The act itself might be frowned upon, but what was done with it must also count for something.
stotheco   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/3/2013 11:33:14 AM
Re: Degrees of severity
It's unfortunate, but the law is the law... It's only fair that the degree of severity of the action itself is taken into consideration, but more often than not, this isn't done because it would make the process much more complicated, not to mention requiring more resources.
batye   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/1/2013 11:29:24 PM
Re: Degrees of severity
Joe, you are right, as in human nature I think exist part of rebel... to try and see if it possible... without even thinking what happens after...
Joe Stanganelli   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/1/2013 4:18:38 PM
Re: Degrees of severity
The truth is that people want to legalize their favorite law to break.  It's just that that truth is more evident when it comes to computer law (hacking, online copyright infringement, etc.).
Joe Stanganelli   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/1/2013 4:17:23 PM
Re: overboard?
To be fair, it's the same thing as saying, "Hey, I broke into your house while you and your children were sleeping just to see if I could do it, and your window locks are really in bad shape and need replacing."
vnewman   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   2/1/2013 12:01:58 PM
Re: Degrees of severity
Does anyone think - as I do - that maybe it should be taken into consideration what was done with the inappropriately accessed info?
Susan Nunziata   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   1/31/2013 6:25:25 PM
Re: Degrees of severity
@Sara: Good point. and indeed laws do need to change to keep up with the changing times.  Likewise, the enforcement of laws also needs to evolve with changing times. For example, once upon a time it wasn't unusual for a police officer to let someone off of a DUI with just a warning, but these days both the laws and the enforcement of them have gotten alot stricter as we've come to understand and take seriously the real danger that drunk driving poses. I'm no expert in computer security law, but it seems we are following a similar path of increasingly strict punishments for transgressions. 
Sara Peters   Freshmen Need Computer Security Law 101   1/31/2013 10:16:13 AM
Re: Degrees of severity
@Susan  I agree with you that these crimes/misdemeanors SHOULD be treated by their degrees of severity. As you say, "But I don't see hacking in the same light as these misdemeanor-or-less incidents that you describe." The trouble is, it doesn't matter how you see it or how I see it -- it matters how the law sees it. 
Page 1 / 6   >   >>

The blogs and comments posted on do not reflect the views of TechWeb,, or its sponsors., TechWeb, and its sponsors do not assume responsibility for any comments, claims, or opinions made by authors and bloggers. They are no substitute for your own research and should not be relied upon for trading or any other purpose.

More Blogs from Sara Peters
Sara Peters   5/30/2014   18 comments
Before I throw my knapsack over my shoulder, head out the door, slouch my way down lonely roads, and try to get a kind stranger to give me a lift to DarkReading, I want to bid a fond adieu ...
Sara Peters   5/7/2014   55 comments
There's a new player in the wearable technology market. While it has a new attitude and a new business plan, it also seems to have new problems that may cause it to miss the mark and the ...
Sara Peters   5/1/2014   32 comments
It's time for an intervention. This addiction to Windows XP has gone too far.
Sara Peters   4/10/2014   21 comments
The race is on to restore trust in the very security tools that are used to ensure online trust. Websites, applications, and services are hastening to patch Heartbleed, a flaw in the ...
Sara Peters   4/4/2014   17 comments
Tablets are becoming more affordable all the time, but they're not so inexpensive that you wouldn't worry if kindergartners treated them with the same care they treat construction paper ...
Latest Archived Broadcast
We talk with Bernard Golden about accelerating application delivery in the cloud.
On-demand Video with Chat
Register for this video discussion to learn how tablets can provide true business usability and productivity.
E2 IT Migration Zones
IT Migration Zone - UK
Why PowerShell Is Important
Reduce the Windows 8 Footprint for VDI
Rethinking Storage Management
IT Migration Zone - FR
SQL Server : 240 To de mémoire flash pour votre data warehouse
Quand Office vient booster les revenus Cloud et Android de Microsoft
Windows Phone : Nokia veut davantage d'applications (et les utilisateurs aussi)
IT Migration Zone - DE
Cloud Computing: Warum Unternehmen trotz NSA auf die „private“ Wolke setzen sollten
Cloud Computing bleibt Wachstumsmarkt – Windows Azure ist Vorreiter
Like Us on Facebook
Twitter Feed
Enterprise Efficiency Twitter Feed
Site Moderators Wanted
Enterprise Efficiency is looking for engaged readers to moderate the message boards on this site. Engage in high-IQ conversations with IT industry leaders; earn kudos and perks. Interested? E-mail:
Dell's Efficiency Modeling Tool
The major problem facing the CIO is how to measure the effectiveness of the IT department. Learn how Dell’s Efficiency Modeling Tool gives the CIO two clear, powerful numbers: Efficiency Quotient and Impact Quotient. These numbers can be transforma¬tive not only to the department, but to the entire enterprise.

Read the full report
The State of Enterprise Efficiency in the Virtual Era: Virtualization – Smart Approaches to Maximize Gains
Virtualization is a presence in nearly all enterprise data centers. But not all companies are using it to its best effect. Learn the common characteristics of success, what barriers companies face, and how to get the most from your efforts.

Read the full report
Informed CIO: Dollars & Sense: Virtual Desktop Infrastructure
Cut through the VDI hype and get the full picture -- including ROI and the impact on your Data Center -- to make an informed decision about your virtual desktop infrastructure deployments.

Read the full report
A Video Case Study – Translational Genomics Research Institute
e2 Video

On the Case
TGen IT: Where We're Going Next

7|11|12   |   08:12   |   10 comments

Now that TGen has broken new ground in genomic research by using Dell's storage, cloud, and high-performance computing solutions, the company discusses what will come next for it and for personalized medicine.
On the Case
Better Care Through Better Communications

6|6|12   |   02:24   |   11 comments

The achievements of the TGen/Dell project could improve how all people receive healthcare, because they are creating ways to improve end-to-end communication of medical data.
On the Case
TGen IT: Where We Are Now

5|15|12   |   06:58   |   6 comments

TGen is breaking new ground in genomic research by using Dell's storage, cloud, and high-performance computing solutions.
On the Case
TGen IT: Where We Were

4|27|12   |   06:45   |   10 comments

The Translational Genomics Research Institute wanted to save lives, but its efforts were hobbled by immense computing challenges related to collecting, processing, sharing, and storing enormous amounts of data.
On the Case
1,200% Faster

4|18|12   |   02:27   |   12 comments

Through their partnership, Dell and TGen have increased the speed of TGen’s medical research by 1,200 percent.
On the Case
IT May Improve Children's Chances of Survival

4|17|12   |   02:12   |   8 comments

IT is helping medical researchers reach breakthroughs in a way and pace never seen before.
On the Case
Medical Advances in the Cloud

4|10|12   |   1:25   |   5 comments

TGen and Dell are pushing the boundaries of computing, and harnessing the power of the cloud to improve healthcare.
On the Case
TGen: Living the Mission

4|9|12   |   2:25   |   3 comments

TGen's CIO puts the organizational mission at the heart of everything the IT staff does.
On the Case
TGen Speeding Up Biomedical Research to Save More Lives

4|5|12   |   1:59   |   6 comments

The Translational Genomics Research Institute is revamping its computing to improve speed, storage, and collaboration – and, most importantly, to save lives.
On the Case
Computing Power Helping to Save Children's Lives

3|28|12   |   2:13   |   3 comments

The Translational Genomics Institute’s partnership with Dell is enabling them to treat kids with neuroblastoma more quickly and save more lives.
Tom Nolle
The Big Reason to Use Office

3|18|14   |   02:24   |   46 comments

Office and personal productivity tools come in a first-class and coach flavor set, but what makes the difference is primarily little things that most users won't encounter. What's the big issue in using something other than Office, and can you get around it?
E2 Editors
SPONSORED: Mobile Security — A Use Case

3|4|14   |   04:27   |   16 comments

New mobile security solutions can accommodate a wide array of needs, including those of a complex university environment.
Tom Nolle
Killing Net Neutrality Might Save You Money

1|16|14   |   2:13   |   16 comments

The DC Court of Appeals voided most of the Neutrality Order, and whatever it might mean for the Internet overall, it might mean better and cheaper Internet VPNs for businesses.
Tom Nolle
The Internet of Everythinguseful

1|10|14   |   2:18   |   19 comments

We really don't want an "Internet of Everything" but even building an Internet of Everythinguseful means setting some ground rules to insure there's value in the process and that costs and risks are minimized.
Tom Nolle
Maturing Google Chrome

12|30|13   |   2.18   |   25 comments

Google's Chrome OS has a lot of potential value and a lot of recent press, but it still needs something to make it more than a thin client. It needs cloud integration, it needs extended APIs via web services, and it needs to suck it up and support a hard drive.
Sara Peters
No More Cookie-Cutter IT

12|23|13   |   03.58   |   21 comments

Creating the right combination of technology, people, and processes for your IT organization is a lot like baking Christmas cookies.
Sara Peters
Smart Wigs Not a Smart Idea

12|5|13   |   3:01   |   46 comments

Sony is seeking a patent for wigs that contain computing devices.
Tom Nolle
Cloud in the Wild

12|4|13   |   02:23   |   15 comments

On a recent African trip I saw examples of the value of the cloud in developing nations, for educational and community development programs. We could build on this, but not only in developing economies, because these same programs are often under-supported even in first-world countries.
E2 Editors
SPONSORED: Is Malware Evading Your IPS?

11|18|13   |   03:16   |   4 comments

Intrusion prevention software is supposed to detect and block malware intrusions, but clever malware authors can evade your IPS in these five main ways.
Sara Peters
Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

9|27|13   |   3:15   |   38 comments

A good professional mentor can change your life for the better... but where do you find one?
Tom Nolle
SDN Wars & You Could Win

9|17|13   |   2:10   |   5 comments

VMware's debate with Cisco on SDN might finally create a fusion between an SDN view that's all about software and another that's all about network equipment. That would be good for every enterprise considering the cloud and SDN.
Ivan Schneider
The Future of the Smart Watch

9|12|13   |   3:19   |   39 comments

Wearing a bulky, oversized watch is good training for the next phase in wristwatches: the Internet-enabled, connected watch. Why the smartphone-tethered connected watch makes sense, plus Ivan demos an entirely new concept for the "smart watch."
Tom Nolle
Cutting Your Cloud Storage Costs

9|4|13   |   2:06   |   3 comments

Cloud storage costs are determined primarily by the rate at which files are changed and the possibility of concurrent access/update. If you can structure your storage use to optimize these factors you can cut costs, perhaps to zero.
Sara Peters
Do CIOs Need an IT Background?

8|29|13   |   2:11   |   23 comments

Most of the CIOs interviewed in the How to Become a CIO series did not start their careers as IT professionals. So is an IT background essential?
Ivan Schneider
The Internet Loves Birthdays

8|27|13   |   3:25   |   69 comments

The Internet has evolved into a machine for drumming up a chorus of "Happy Birthday" messages, from family, friends, friends of friends who you added on Facebook, random people that you circled on G+, and increasingly, automated bots. Enough already.