Kutztown, Pa. school district: Downloading iChat is a felony

Updated September 2: Twelve of the thirteen students have been offered an informal adjustment, where all charges will be dropped for community service and a brief probation. The other student will face charges as he had a prior criminal history.

Thirteen high school students in Kutztown, Pa., have been charged with computer trespass, a third degree felony, for simply trying to use the laptops the school district forced on them.

The “Kutztown 13,” as they have come to be called, state that this all started when the school district issued all students an iBook laptop, and required them to use it. They had installed remote monitoring software on all the laptops and had placed blocks to prevent the students from downloading software, such as iChat, or visiting Web sites.

Shortly after the laptops were rolled out, a few students discovered that the administrator password, granting all access to the laptop, was actually taped on the back of it! It also turned out to be the street address of the school. Naturally some of them took advantage of this. While most did nothing any more harmful than downloading iChat or a video game, a few instances of students looking at pornography were alleged.

The password was later changed on some students’ computers, but that password also proved easy to obtain. Simple security programs on the Internet, such as John the Ripper, allow brute-force cracking of passwords on Unix computers, and since Mac OS X is based on Unix, the technique can be applied to Macintosh passwords. For a simple password, John the Ripper may return the password in minutes or even seconds; for a sufficiently secure password, it may take years.

The parents of the children involved were never contacted about the problem, many of them reporting that the first they heard of it was receiving a letter from the police department requiring them to turn in their children.

In addition, there was no process in place for suspending computer privileges. The students were required to have the computers, even in detention, thus compounding the problem. Two of the thirteen eventually charged had tried to give up their computers, but were refused and required to keep them.

More news coverage from Associated Press is available.

The children have started a Web site where they tell their side of the story and argue that any punishments should be appropriate. I agree; using the computer that the school forced on you is far from inappropriate, and while this behavior might merit detention, it should not be placed in the same class with assault or robbery.

It seems to me that the school district’s IT department simply did not know how to properly secure its computers, and for this it is blaming the students. Trying to give these students a criminal record for using iChat is beyond the pale.