Lawyer: Student in NW16 Basement Was ‘Hacking’

Felony Charges Against Student Are Still Pending

More than four weeks after Michael P. Short G was arrested after being found in an off-limits location in NW16, felony charges are still pending against him. Despite silence from officials at MIT, Short’s lawyer seems optimistic that the charges will eventually be dropped as in previous hacking-related cases.

Steven J. Sack, Short’s lawyer, drew a connection between Short’s case and the case of Kristina K. Brown ’09, David Nawi G, and Matthew W. Petersen ’09, who were charged with trespassing and breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony after being found in the Faculty Club after hours in October 2006. In that case, the charges were eventually dismissed at MIT’s request after substantial community outcry. Sack was also the lawyer for Brown.

“It’s a hacking case,” said Sack. “I’m hoping that the case will be resolved in a similar fashion [to the Brown, Nawi, and Petersen case], but I haven’t spoken with anybody at MIT.”

Short, who is a former Tech features writer, declined to comment.

Numerous MIT administrators who were contacted for this article declined to comment on the details specific to this case, most citing its pending state and the ongoing fact-finding process.

Oaz Nir, president of the Graduate Student Council, wrote in an e-mail that “there are a couple things going on,” but otherwise also declined to comment.

Two MIT Police officers responding to a motion-triggered alarm just before midnight on Saturday, June 7 found Short, along with fellow MIT graduate student Harold S. Barnard and Brandeis University graduate student Marina Dang, in a normally locked caged room in the basement of Building NW16. Short now faces charges of breaking and entering at night with intent to commit a felony and possession of burglarious instruments.

The police report filed by Duane R. Keegan, one of the responding officers, also indicated an intent to file criminal summons for breaking and entering in the nighttime against Barnard and Dang. However, as of Monday afternoon, no records could be found at Cambridge District Court of any such charges.

Short’s next court date will be a July 18 pretrial hearing.

CoD chair speaks about boundaries

Though Sheila E. Widnall ’60, chair of the Committee on Discipline, declined to comment on the specifics of Short’s case, she did talk with The Tech about her philosophy with regards to hacking, the different areas on campus, and appropriate boundaries.

The Committee on Discipline takes “each case on individual merits almost without regard to the hacking policy,” said Widnall. For the committee, she said, the really important issues are “What are the boundaries?” and “Who decides?”

In expounding on appropriate boundaries for hacking, Widnall drew a division between traditional hacking locations and locations that might pose a greater danger. “There are spaces at MIT that in some sense are historic and may belong to the community,” she said. “And there are some spaces that are damn dangerous.”

She especially singled out laboratories as examples of dangerous locations. With regards to the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, of which NW16 is a part, she noted the high voltages and highly expensive equipment that is required for the research there.

“This is not the same as the buildings on main campus,” not in the same category as the Great Dome, Widnall said.

As for “who decides,” Widnall defers to the laboratory directors for labs. “For spaces such as laboratories, the prerogative is with the director of the laboratory” to express a point of view about the seriousness with which an unauthorized access incident should be viewed, she said.

Widnall noted the tension inherent in a mixed community such as MIT, where students and researchers have to coexist in the same shared campus space. “Does breaking into someone’s research laboratory meet the goal of an MIT hack?” she asked. “When someone breaks into a laboratory, that violates the basic idea of what this community is about.”

Police policy to notify Dean on Call

Former MIT Police chief and current MIT security director John DiFava also declined to comment on the specifics of Short’s case, citing legal reasons. However, he did talk with The Tech about some of the avenues through which the MIT Police communicate incidents to the MIT administration.

Upon any “significant incident,” including the arrest of a student, “the police department’s policy is to automatically notify the Dean on Call,” said DiFava. The Dean on Call is a service provided by the Division of Student Life in which members of the Residential Life Programs staff are available to students for emergency assistance after hours or when the Institute is closed.

“We will give the Dean on Call all the information” that we legally can as soon as possible, said DiFava. The Dean on Call can then make the proper further notifications.

In addition, DiFava said that a representative from the MIT Police attends weekly Division of Student Life meetings.

In Short’s case, the sphere of notifications seems to have traveled only so far, though. Widnall said, “I knew about this case probably the day after it happened.” However, on the Thursday after Short’s arrest, when The Tech contacted Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 for comment, he had not yet heard about the arrest and charges.