The definition of hacking in Florida might get a whole lot broader if Domanik Green is found guilty, now that the Pasco County, Florida prosecutors have apparently not yet decided to drop hacking charges against the 8th grader.
The Serious Crime of Changing a Desktop Background
To be clear from the outset, all this boy did was change a desktop background of a teacher that him and his fellow students disliked. This is not unlike writing on the blackboard behind the teacher’s back, a crime punished with detention. But the Pasco County Sheriffs believe that Green violated Chapter 815 of the Florida law, specifically chapter 06 thereof, which classifies the boy’s activities, technically speaking, as a felony in the third degree.
Technically speaking. If people who don’t know what they’re talking about are railroaded by an overzealous prosecution looking for a Supreme Court loss down the road. Certainly a higher court would see the ratiocination of this case to be a miscarriage of the spirit and letter of the law. In any case, the legality pertaining to Green reads:
A person commits an offense against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks, or electronic devices if he or she willfully, knowingly, and without authorization […] accesses or causes to be accessed any computer, computer system, computer network, or electronic device with knowledge that such access is unauthorized [and] […] introduces any computer contaminant into any computer, computer system, computer network, or electronic device […]
Or at least that’s the only part of the computer crimes section of Florida law that Hacked has been able to apply to the County Sheriff’s assertion that young Green committed “offense against a computer system and unauthorized access.” These two violations are both listed as third degree felonies, which in Florida are punishable by up to five years each and can carry fines of $5,000.
How did he violate the law? Allegedly, he used the well-known password of the (absentee) teacher he didn’t like, logged on, and changed the background of the desktop to a picture of two men kissing. The image must be the “contaminant” and the use of the password use must be the unauthorized access. Law is a tricky thing, even for those who administer and prosecute it, and there is a fatal flaw in the legal strategy of the sheriff, who is most likely expecting the young man and his mother to stand down.
Teenage Ignorance of the Law
The case gets more interesting when you hear the words of young Mr. Green himself. The boy, whom school officials said had previously been in trouble for similar activities (and they hadn’t felt the need to call the police that time), claims he had no clue he was breaking the law. Now, remember what you just read above: “knowingly, and without authorization […] with knowledge that such access is unauthorized.”
Here is what he said to the local news, when they approached him shortly after he was released from jail. It is unusual for a minor criminal to be identified, but the boy and his mother were eager to speak to the news, apparently realizing immediately that an injustice was being carried out.
If they had notified me that it was illegal, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place, but all they said was, you shouldn’t be doing that.
Further, the boy claims that accessing the systems using teacher’s passwords is a regular occurrence, and that many students in the district do it. It must be why the teacher’s passwords are so easy to know.
The computer crimes law in Florida seems to be written, in spirit, to deal with malicious hackers who do actual damage. For instance, it has a specifically harsher sentence for those who disrupt hospitals. It also makes immune police agencies, which is troubling.
The court could set a very dangerous precedent if they convict Green of any crime in relation to his activities. Next, parents will be having their children locked up for unlawful use of their data plan, which the court could conceivably consider a network. Rationality has to start somewhere. It may not be the job of the Sheriff to drop charges, only to make arrests and enforce his understanding of the law, but it is most certainly the job of the prosecutors to weed out frivolous or unnecessary cases.
A conviction of Mr. Green will only teach the other students that the administration is insane, and their parents that they should move to a more intelligent district. It will most likely, one might not, ruin his life before it’s even begun. It is exactly the kind of case that should have stayed within school walls.
Meanwhile, the very same administrators who felt authorized to create a national news story out of a classroom prank have a suspiciously missing public policy on student discipline. Interesting.
Update: the EFF have picked up on this case, there is a crowdfunding campaign to fund Mr. Green’s legal defense, and there is now a petition online to have him acquitted. Rational people nationwide seem to be striking back.