Senator offers bill targeting school Web site hackers

Monday, August 13, 2001
Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.

Sen. Robert Torricelli wasn’t amused by the antics of a handful of California hackers who last year peppered the Web site of a small New Jersey school district with profanity and references to the 1999 Columbine massacre.

And he wasn’t pleased that efforts over the past year to prosecute the perpetrators in federal court failed partly because the hackers didn’t cause more than $5,000 in actual damages.

The New Jersey Democrat decided to do something about it.

“Computer hackers who prey upon unsuspecting schools, striking fear in the hearts of entire communities with threats of violence, cannot go unpunished,” said Torricelli in introducing the School Website Protection Act of 2001 earlier this month.

Torricelli’s bill targets any computer user who “knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally affects or impairs without authorization a computer of an elementary school or secondary school or institution of higher education.”

But some computer experts and student-rights advocates say that could describe nearly anyone who uses a school computer or visits a school-related Web site. And they say the bill goes beyond Web sites and covers almost any aspect of a school computer system.

J.D. Abolins of Meyda Online Information Security and Privacy Studies says the crucial terms of the bill come down to the words “impairs” and “affects.”

“‘Impairs’ points to doing something with a negative impact upon the quality or performance of the system or its data,” Abolins said. “But ‘affects’ is a verb that covers anything — good, bad, ugly — that changes the system. Any transaction with the computer system, technically, ‘affects’ it.”

That means, Abolins said, school officials could target the student journalist who posts a hotly debated article on a Web site or the teacher who fiddles with school filtering software to improve research queries online. Abolins contends that even an e-mail sent to a teacher from a concerned parent might trigger provisions of Torricelli’s bill, if it should pass.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the measure seemed bizarre to him, particularly when he hadn’t seen evidence of a national trend of hacking school Web sites. Even if there were a trend, he said he thought that existing state law already considers such conduct a criminal offense.

“I don’t see any evidence that this justifies federal criminal prosecution,” he said in a telephone interview.

Instead, Goodman said, such a law would encourage school officials to go after Web sites offering negative content about their school districts. If such a site included a link to the school system Web site, officials might say the very link affects or impairs the district site.

“Schools are so anxious to have any means they can find to punish students who are publishing on the Internet independently,” Goodman said. “I would fully imagine that they would use this as a way to go after them.

“But there is one limited safeguard,” he said. “This would be a criminal statute. School officials can’t pursue this on their own. They have to have a prosecutor.”

The defacement of the Lumberton Township Schools’ Web site generated considerable attention last year when hackers posted the declaration “Columbine Relived!” and some profanity. School officials say many parents were afraid to send their children to school for several days.

But officials said they were concerned, too, that they couldn’t prosecute the offenders under current federal cyberterrorism statutes, which protect only government computers and those of banks and similar institutions.

Under current federal law, the Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn’t consider the tampering of a nongovernmental Web site as criminal trespassing unless there is more than $5,000 in damages.

With Torricelli’s proposal, any tampering of Web sites belonging to schools, public and private, would be considered a violation of federal law. Violators would risk five to ten years in prison if “the offense was committed for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” In other cases, violators could face a year in prison.

Abolins, a New Jersey resident himself, says he’s not convinced that Torricelli’s bill is about Web site hacking so much as about punishing a message. Abolins said the uproar would have been the same if the Columbine message had been spray painted on a wall or printed on fliers.

“If the message were less ominous, I doubt there would have been a push for the law,” he said. “Had the perp put up a simple ‘owned by ____’ tag or, say, ‘Winners don’t use drugs,’ I doubt that the school district would so hot and heavy out for federalizing school-system hacking.”

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