Grad Student Found In NW16 Basement Faces Felony Charges
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The June 13, 2008 article about a graduate student facing charges for breaking and entering gave misleading information about the prison term he may face. Though a sentence of up to 20 years in state prison is allowed under Massachusetts General Law, the Massachusetts Sentencing Guidelines make it difficult to impose more than a one year sentence for a first-time offender. The same article misspelled the name of graduate student Michael P. Short’s attorney. Short is represented by Steven J. Sack, not Fack. Sack also represented Kristina K. Brown ’09 when she faced similar charges after being found in the Faculty Club in the middle of the night in 2006.
A graduate student faces felony charges after MIT Police found three students in a caged room in Building NW16 late Saturday night. The incident is reminiscent of the felony charges filed against three hackers found exploring the Faculty Club in October 2006.
Two MIT Police officers responded to a motion-triggered alarm just before midnight on Saturday, June 7 in the basement of NW16, where they found MIT graduate students Michael P. Short and Harold S. Barnard and Brandeis University graduate student Marina Dang. Short was subsequently arrested and taken to the Cambridge Police Department headquarters for booking.
Short has since been charged with breaking and entering at night with intent to commit a felony and possession of burglarious instruments, both felony charges. If convicted, Short faces up to 20 years in state prison for breaking and entering and up to 10 years in state prison or a fine of up to $1,000 and two-and-a-half years in jail for possession of burglarious instruments.
It is unclear why the police did not arrest the other two students. In the police report for the incident, officer Duane R. Keegan writes that Barnard and Dang “will be issued criminal summons for Breaking and Entering in the Nighttime.”
No documents concerning Barnard or Dang could be found, according to Jessica Venezia, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex District Attorney’s office. But past experience with the Faculty Club incident suggests that those students may still be charged.
Short, who is a former Tech features writer, declined to comment because of the pending charges against him, referring questions to his lawyer, Steven J. Fack. Fack was on vacation and could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.
Barnard declined to comment. Dang could not be reached for comment.
Students found in locked area
Short, Barnard, and Dang were found in the caged room NW16-038, according to the police report filed by Keegan, one of the two arresting officers. They had apparently entered the room after opening a combination lock with a tool traditionally called a “shim,” a piece of metal cut from the side of a Diet Coke can.
According to Keegan, Short said “that he was there to see what he could find for parts in the area.” Short voluntarily showed the officers the tool he had used to open the combination lock and demonstrated how he had done it, according to Keegan’s report. Short was arrested after he confirmed that he was in the locked area after having broken the lock open, Keegan writes in the report. The list of evidence Keegan reports includes “17 pieces of Diet Coke can” identical to the one used to open the combination lock.
NW16, located at 167 Albany St., is one of the buildings that house the Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Barnard conducts research at the PSFC; Short has an office in NW22, two buildings further down Albany St.
A felony charge of breaking and entering requires an intent to commit a felony. But the court documents do not explicitly indicate what felony Short is believed to have intended to commit. Keegan’s report suggests that he suspected theft: “NW 16 [sic] is a common area for theft due to the specialty metals and electronics equipment present in the area.”
Short was taken to the Cambridge Police Department for booking. Along the way, “Mr Short’s cuffs were double locked and checked for comfort,” Keegan writes in the report. After his booking, Short was arraigned on Monday, June 9 and released on $200 bail. His next court date is a July 18 pretrial hearing, Venezia said.
Undergraduate Association President Noah S. Jessop ’09, who has been in contact with Short, said that he “was totally floored” when he learned about this incident. He said that it was his understanding that the three had been hacking at the time, and that Short had been fully cooperative with the officers.
Jessop said he worried about the negative effect that this incident might have on future hackers’ interactions with the MIT Police. “I fear that this sort of response to hacking will undermine hackers’ first instincts to cooperate — complying, they shouldn’t have to worry about being slapped with state charges,” he said.
Echoes of October 2006 Faculty Club incident
The current incident is reminiscent of the incident at the Faculty Club in October 2006, when Kristina K. Brown ’09, David Nawi G, and Matthew W. Petersen ’09 were charged with trespassing and breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony after being found by two officers responding to a burglar alarm on the sixth floor of Building E52.
Those charges were eventually dismissed at MIT’s request following substantial public outcry that raised questions of how MIT’s hacking community is to coexist with the police.
Petersen was in possession of an L-shaped piece of metal which he “proudly identified ... as a slide, to slide doors open,” according to the report filed by MIT Police officer Sean Munnelly. He faced an additional charge of possession of burglarious tools.
The students were summonsed to court to face the charges on Nov. 17, 2006, almost a month after the Oct. 22 incident. This delay between the incident and the charges suggests that the two students who have not yet been charged in the NW16 incident may still be charged.
Keegan was present at both the October 2006 incident and the incident on Saturday.
Brown, Nawi, and Petersen characterized themselves as hackers who were, in the words of a statement released by their attorneys at the time, “engaging in a longstanding tradition among MIT students of after-hours exploration of the university campus.” They disputed a claim by MIT Police that they had broken into a locked area — instead, the students said, they simply pushed the sixth floor button on an unlocked elevator.
The public disclosure of the charges in The Tech in February 2007 brought a storm of criticism from student leaders and some faculty and alumni who believed that the matter should have been handled internally at MIT and should not have escalated to external charges. The charges were eventually dropped at the end of that month.
That incident also sparked a campus-wide discussion of how MIT should balance its concerns about physical security with students’ traditional interest in exploration. The Institute eventually drafted an official statement on hacking based on the traditional “Hacker Code of Ethics” to be added to the student handbook in fall 2008. MIT also updated its unauthorized access policy. (For both, see box below.) The wording was finalized in February 2008 and was completely approved by April, said former UA Senator Steven M. Kelch ’08, who was involved in the drafting process.
“It’s not necessarily a policy so much as it is a statement,” said Kelch. “It doesn’t necessarily say that [MIT administrators] want to support it, because they can’t for legal reasons.”
It had seemed that the 2007 discussion was going to change the way MIT handled hacking cases in ways which should have prevented the NW16 incident. Last fall, then-UA President Martin F. Holmes ’08 told The Tech that all future hacking cases dealing with unauthorized access would be brought to the faculty-student Committee on Discipline.
Only the CoD — not MIT Police or individual deans — should be involved in handling hacking cases, Kelch told The Tech in fall 2007. They “can’t have multiple tracks,” he said. “It’s to hard to be accountable.”
But ultimately the committee working on MIT’s hacking policy “didn’t establish any kind of procedure for police involvement other than to keep basically what was already there, which was that there is always a possibility of legal action in addition to disciplinary action,” Kelch said in an interview last night.
David Kennedy, director of the Office of Student Mediation and Community Standards, clarified that all official disciplinary actions made by MIT receive their authority from the Committee on Discipline, but that the MIT Police are separate, being “state agents.” Kelch also stated, “MIT Police answers to the state first, and MIT second.”
Former MIT Police chief and current MIT security director John DiFava did not respond to phone calls last night. Deputy Chief of Police John E. Driscoll could not be reached for comment.
Captain David Carlson of the MIT Police confirmed the information in the public police log that Short had been arrested, but he declined to comment further, referring questions to the public court documents.
Student leaders warn administration
Graduate Student Council President Oaz Nir said he hoped that the MIT administration would support Short as this case proceeds. “MIT should fully support this student as the facts of the case are investigated,” Nir said.
“In responding to this event, I hope that the MIT administration keeps in mind the lessons learned from its responses to similar recent events,” Nir said, referring to the Faculty Club incident and the Star A. Simpson ’10 incident.
Jessop expressed similar sentiments. “I hope the administration supports the students, and from what little I know about the incident, this response seems surprising, particularly considering the community’s response to the Faculty Club incident,” he said.
Kelch also noted the level of discontent among student leaders, who have mounted recent efforts to try to increase the amount of say students have in administration decisions. Kelch warned that improper handling of this most recent event might add “fuel to that fire.”
The court documents of Short’s case, including Keegan’s full statement, are available online at http://tech.mit.edu/V128/N28/hackers/complaint.pdf.
Angeline Wang contributed to the reporting of this story.