From The Faculty Chair
Observations from the Swartz Report
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Everything’s allowed … until you’re caught. Mixed messages on hacking (in the MIT sense of a harmless, creative practical joke) have caused concern for faculty, staff, and students.
There is a sense that MIT officially sanctions and celebrates hacks, for example, by featuring hacks on the MIT Website and admissions tours, but also may punish hackers who are caught in the act of trespassing or some other relatively minor infraction. Students, in particular, described the challenge of not knowing where the boundaries are, and a sense that the consequences of overstepping those boundaries could be harsh.
Some perceive an unfair bargain in which students bear the risks, but the Institute reaps the benefits. While we heard some ideas on ways to facilitate “safe” hacking (e.g., training classes for accessing the Great Dome) or make boundaries clearer, we’re also aware that part of the appeal of hacking is to do something that normally is not condoned.
Support for those in trouble. We heard that MIT needs to support individuals from our community when they push against certain boundaries in service of research or other kinds of efforts that align with MIT values. Not surprisingly, students would like to have a sense that the first institutional response will always be to defend students. In our forums, we challenged the audience to enunciate principles that would help us determine who is a member of our community, under what circumstances MIT should provide institutional support for community members in legal difficulty, and what sort of support would be appropriate. Attendees at our forums generally wanted a more inclusive definition of membership in our community, but had difficulty in enunciating general principles for deciding under what circumstances MIT should offer support.
In both student forums, mental health came up as an example of an area in which MIT could do more to support students. Graduate students pointed to the isolation that can stem from legal difficulties. A perception widely held by undergraduates is that MIT makes decisions with respect to mental health difficulties based on what is best for MIT, rather than what is best for the student. The undergraduates expressed concerns that students on medical leave for mental health reasons are generally not allowed to be on campus, and are thus cut off from their community, which they view as a source of support. Students cited MIT’s response to mental health issues as supporting the idea that MIT’s first instinct is to distance itself from students who might be a liability for the Institute.
Doing the right thing, quietly. In talking with students especially about MIT’s response to hacking (in the MIT sense), students brought up cases that in their view were handled poorly, but which occurred years ago, long before they came to MIT. One prominent case from 2006 involved three students who faced felony breaking and entering charges for sneaking into the MIT Faculty Club. Although the charges were ultimately dropped by Middlesex County prosecutors at the urging of MIT police and administrators, the student collective memory still recalls that the charges were first filed by MIT police. (The initial decision to bring charges may have been influenced by prior thefts of items from the Faculty Club.) Not surprisingly, students would like all hacking cases heard before the Committee on Discipline rather than in the criminal justice system.
There is an information asymmetry that affects community perception of difficult cases such as the 2006 Faculty Club incident. Every day, faculty, staff, and members of the administration quietly resolve or overlook small infractions, and take others to the Committee on Discipline (CoD). In many cases before the CoD, students accept responsibility for their actions without a hearing, and appropriate (and usually fairly modest) sanctions are imposed. But the community rarely hears about such cases, because they are handled confidentially. As a result, the narrative can easily be shaped by negative examples, and surprising takeaway conclusions can become accepted lore. This information asymmetry creates a perception that MIT often fails to support students in trouble.
More legal resources. Especially among graduate student and staff researchers, we heard that laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) can pose risks to individuals pursuing legitimate academic and extracurricular activities. There were a number of suggestions on how to better equip our community to navigate the current legal environment. This year, the IAP subject Coders, Know Your Rights: A Practical Introduction to Technology and the Law, was offered in the Media Lab, which covered legal issues around software coding, including issues in copyright law, the CFAA, and data privacy. Students suggested the expansion of formal curricular offerings in this area. (We note that the Anthropology Section is collaborating with Suffolk University to develop an IAP offering on intellectual property law.)
Also suggested were regular or on-demand briefings from the Office of the General Counsel on legal risks associated with computing activities, and Web resources on the CFAA and other potential legal risks.
It’s clear to us that there is an unmet demand for legal information, especially among students and researchers in the Media Lab and EECS. Similarly, students say there is a need for a path for questions and consultations related to ethics in the digital sphere, similar to that available through the Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects (COUHES) for research involving human subjects. Finally, graduate students suggested that MIT create an administrative position of legal triage advisor to help students in need of legal advice. In parallel to our engagement process, President Reif has asked the Provost, Chancellor, and General Counsel to develop a proposal for creating a resource for student inventors and entrepreneurs to obtain independent legal advice.
What does it mean to be a leader? Finally, many in our community expressed pride in MIT’s reputation as a leader in technology and innovation, but were disappointed that MIT did not make a statement regarding the prosecution of Aaron Swartz specifically, and more broadly on the merits (or lack thereof) of the CFAA. They believe that it is incumbent upon MIT to exercise its leadership by taking a public stance on issues of national importance. No doubt, this desire to have highly visible statements of public import emanating from MIT comes from a widely shared aspiration for MIT to exercise every opportunity to serve the public good. But we heard from many others who believe that it would have been inappropriate for MIT to have made a statement in the Swartz case.
Historically, MIT has rarely taken an institutional position on public issues that lie outside its research and educational missions, and for good reasons. But faculty can and should influence public debate on other matters of national importance. The expertise individual faculty bring to the debate is more powerful than necessarily conservative and muted expressions from the administration. Our faculty have helped shape the national debate in areas such as global warming, nuclear disarmament, and economic policy, to name just a few. No doubt our faculty and others in the MIT community with influential voices have a role to play in the national debate over computer security and privacy as well.
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