Boston College Campus Police: “Using Prompt Commands” May Be a Sign of Criminal Activity

By Stephen Pate, NJN Network, Charlottetown, PEI, Canada, April 18, 2009 with story from Electronic Frontier Foundation

Boston College Campus Police have seized the computers and other electronic equipment from a student for using two operating systems on the same computer. Apparently one of them, sounds like Linux, had a command prompt screen that looked suspicious. That is unless, you are into Unix, Linux or MS DOS. The student provided a repair service for other students. Apparently, the students computer knowledge constitutes probable cause.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Deeplink by Matt Zimmerman

On Friday, EFF and the law firm of Fish and Richardson filed an emergency motion to quash [pdf] and for the return of seized property on behalf of a Boston College computer science student whose computers, cell phone, and other property were seized as part of an investigation into who sent an e-mail to a school mailing list identifying another student as gay. The problem? Not only is there no indication that any crime was committed, the investigating officer argued that the computer expertise of the student itself supported a finding of probable cause to seize the student’s property.

The warrant application [pdf] cites the following allegedly suspicious behavior:

Should Boston College Linux users be looking over their shoulders?

In his application, the investigating officer asked that he be permitted to seize the student’s computers and other personal effects because they might yield evidence of the crimes of “Obtaining computer services by Fraud or Misrepresentation” and “Unauthorized access to a computer system.” Aside from the remarkable overreach by campus and state police in trying to paint a student as suspicious in part because he can navigate a non-Windows computer environment, nothing cited in the warrant application could possibly constitute the cited criminal offenses. There are no assertions that a commercial (i.e. for pay) commercial service was defrauded, a necessary element of any “Obtaining computer services by Fraud or Misrepresentation” allegation. Similarly, the investigating officer doesn’t explain how sending an e-mail to a campus mailing list might constitute “unauthorized access to a computer system.”

During its March 30th search, police seized (among other things) the computer science major’s computers, storage drives, cell phone, iPod Touch, flash drives, digital camera, and Ubuntu Linux CD. None of these items have been returned. He has been suspended from his job pending the investigation. His personal documents and information are in the hands of the state police who continue to examine it without probable cause, searching for evidence to support unsupportable criminal allegations.

Next up? An emergency court hearing as soon as the court will hear us in which we will ask that the search warrant be voided and the student’s property returned. Stay tuned…

Related Issues: Coders’ Rights Project

Related Cases: In re: matter of search warrant (Boston College)