Charges Dropped Against Student Arrested in NW16

Felony charges against Michael P. Short G related to his arrest in the basement of NW16 have been dropped. According to the motion filed by the prosecution on July 18, dropping the charges is “in the interests of justice as discipline proceedings will be conducted by the MIT internal discipline board.”

Steven J. Sack, Short’s lawyer, expressed satisfaction at the resolution of the criminal charges against Short. According to Sack, Short was hacking at the time of his arrest. Short himself did not respond to requests for comment.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The MIT News Office declined to comment.

Short was found in a caged room in the basement of NW16 on the night of June 7 along with Harold S. Barnard G and Brandeis University graduate student Marina Dang. According to the police report filed by officer Duane R. Keegan, Short voluntarily showed how he had used a tool made from a Diet Coke can to open the combination lock that had secured the room. He was subsequently arrested and charged with breaking and entering at night with intent to commit a felony and possession of burglarious instruments. Neither Barnard nor Dang have been charged in connection with this incident.

Should Short have been charged?

Undergraduate Association President Noah S. Jessop ’09 stated that he was “very pleased to hear the change of direction in the handling of the case.” However, Jessop expressed concerns about the lessons future hackers might take from this incident.

“I think that in a case where you’ve got a student on Institute property who cooperates, it sends a very conflicting message to send that to Cambridge courts,” he said. “We do not want to send a signal encouraging people to risk life and limb to flee.”

Charging students found in unauthorized locations is “very detrimental to both the Institute and the students involved,” making it much harder for both to go about their normal business, Jessop said.

“In a nonviolent case where a student fully cooperates, things should be handled internally,” Jessop said.

Nevertheless, Sack said that he and Short “feel the police did the right thing in the case.” And former MIT Police chief and current MIT security director John DiFava stood by the MIT Police officers’ decision to file charges against Short. “I thought that the actions were appropriate under the circumstances,” he said.

“Oftentimes an officer finds himself in a situation where the facts dictate that a certain action has to be taken,” DiFava said. “This was one of those situations.”

DiFava pointed to location as the primary reason that the incident escalated to criminal charges. “It was not a logical place for hacking or exploring,” he said. He noted that there are no tunnels or suspended ceilings in the basement of NW16, both features that are commonly of interest to hackers.

In addition, DiFava noted that certain responses by Short may have raised some flags. Keegan claims in his police report that Short said “that he was there to see what he could find for parts in the area.” DiFava also believes that nothing was mentioned about hacking until well after the incident.

The officer “made a determination that it was potentially a crime,” DiFava said.

NW16 inappropriate for hacking?

As part of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, NW16 has slightly tighter security than other parts of campus. Because it houses materials and equipment purchased with funds from the federal governments, the security at the PSFC is reviewed by the Department of Energy every two years, said Matt Fulton, safety coordinator and facilities manager at the PSFC.

Fulton said that the basement of NW16 serves as a storage area for various PSFC labs. According to Fulton, there are “high-value stores” in some areas as well as equipment, such as capacitors and lasers, which could be hazardous if released to the general public.

According to Keegan’s police report, “NW 16 is a common area for theft,” but the MIT Police’s press log does not record any events in NW16 other than Short’s arrest within the past year. However, according to Fulton, there has been an incidence of theft from the basement of NW16 within the last five years.

“As a research laboratory that’s funded by the federal government, we have an obligation” to the protect the property there, said Fulton.

Fulton deferred specific questions about security at NW16 to the director of the PSFC, Miklos Porkolab, who declined to comment.

Despite being part of the PSFC, NW16 does not seem to be a central location for active laboratory research, though. According to PSFC Library coordinator Jason Thomas, NW16 houses mostly conference rooms, offices, and classrooms, with there being only possibly “a couple small labs” in the building.

Though the building is not accessible to the general MIT community, Thomas said that all PSFC personnel have cards that grant them access to NW16 as well as other PSFC buildings, such as NW17 and NW21. According to its Web site, the PSFC Library, which is located on the first floor of NW16, is open 24 hours, 7 days a week to the PSFC community.

It seems that both Short and Barnard had access to NW16 as graduate students in the PSFC.

Nevertheless, despite NW16’s mostly non-active-laboratory function, Fulton expressed a desire for hackers to stay out of NW16 along with the rest of the PSFC. “I hope that research laboratories will become exempt from hacking as a result of this.” He noted his concerns over safety and over research projects that might be jeopardized if equipment were to go missing.

The hack etiquette in MIT’s statement on hacking to be included in the student handbook in the fall includes the item, “Do not steal anything.”

Conversation on hacking to continue

DiFava expressed some frustration with the response to the MIT Police from this incident and the Faculty Club incident in fall 2006, when three students found after hours in the Faculty Club were also charged in Cambridge District Court.

“We’re here to help, not to harm, not to negatively impact anybody,” DiFava said. He noted that there have been dozens of encounters in the last two years in which students found in unauthorized locations have been quietly referred to internal MIT discipline proceedings or even told simply to vacate the premises without further action.

“We don’t have a lot of guidance,” DiFava said, “because it is so difficult a topic.”

“I would prefer that we have further guidance,” DiFava said, but he wanted people to understand that given the circumstances, “we’re not doing bad here.”

“Further guidance” may be forthcoming, as Jessop said that “one of my goals for this year is to be able to paint some really clear boundaries” for what’s hacking and what’s not and to try to define “what everybody can expect from this tradition that brings the Institute great pride and publicity.” Jessop conceded that he did not expect to be able to draw “hard and fast lines,” but he did hope to achieve some “forward progress” in resolving the miscommunication that he’s seen over hacking and its boundaries.