The Tech - Snowy Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 6.0°F | Light Snow and Breezy

Students accused of computer theft

By Brian Rosenberg

and Joey Marquez

Three undergraduate students may face disciplinary action from the Office of the Dean for Student Affairs in connection with multiple thefts of computers from MIT laboratories, according to Campus Police Chief Anne P. Glavin and Associate Dean for Student Affairs James R. Tewhey.

Computers from three separate laboratories -- the Technology Laboratory for Advanced Composites (TELAC), the Space Engineering Research Center (SERC), and the Center for Space Research (CSR) -- were stolen in separate incidents, beginning as early as last summer. TELAC and SERC are part of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and CSR is part of the Department of Physics.

"As a ballpark figure, about $70,000 of computer equipment is involved," said Glavin. She added, however, that more than three-quarters of the stolen equipment has been recovered.

Informant tipped off CPs

Glavin said the Campus Police were "originally given information by an informant who did not want to become involved" in the investigation. "We informed [the students] that they were being investigated early in March," she added.

Glavin said the students were implicated in "multiple thefts in more than one department." Both Glavin and Tewhey said the investigation was ongoing. "Parts of the investigation will go on for some time," Tewhey said, adding that information the Campus Police generate is being turned over to the Dean's Office. "The investigation might lead to more students [being investigated]," Glavin said.

She said the case would be "dealt with in internal administrative procedures in the [ODSA]." Criminal charges will not be brought because the case is "not a situation where the students were caught red-handed," Glavin said. "The situation has required discussion and cooperation with the students in order to get the equipment back," she added.

Tewhey said that "action from the Dean's Office is pending" but added that no timetable for the action had been set. He would not discuss details of the ODSA's intentions.

Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Sheila E. Widnall '60, chairman of the Committee on Discipline, said she does not expect that the COD will be involved in the case. "I'm fairly certain the Dean's Office can completely handle the case, including any recommendations to the president [for future action] or housing-related education issues," she said.

Fraternity involved in thefts

Widnall's comment points to a connection with an independent living group. Earll M. Murman, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said he could "confirm that the students involved are from a fraternity," though he declined to specify which one. And he commented that he was "very disappointed that [the thieves] were students."

Tewhey and Glavin declined to comment on any living group involvement. "I don't feel it's appropriate to comment on that at this time," Glavin said.

Anonymous sources in both CSR and SERC indicated that the Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) fraternity had been involved. "I have heard from two independent, unconfirmed sources that Fiji was involved," the SERC source said.

Fiji President Michael J. Pecoraro '92 denied the allegations. "Fiji was not involved as a fraternity," he said. Pecoraro refused to comment on whether individual members of Fiji were involved in the thefts, saying he was "quite limited in what I can say right now."

Thefts began last summer

The first theft in this case occurred at SERC last summer. Mark S. Barlow G, who works in SERC, said he thought about $12,000 worth of equipment had been stolen last July. "We lost a Macintosh IIcx with a big monitor, an external hard drive for a Macintosh SE, an SE with an internal hard drive, and a LaserWriter IINT," he said.

Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Edward F. Crawley '76, director of SERC, said he thought $12,000 was "in the right range." He said that some of the equipment was owned by the Institute, "so it is insured and has been replaced." Crawley said "most of the other equipment was owned by the federal government, which self-insures.

"What that comes down to on the individual lab level," Crawley added, "is a loss of the equipment, since it was almost certainly purchased out of research funds."

Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Paul A. Lagace '78, director of TELAC, said equipment was stolen from TELAC on two separate occasions. "The first batch, which was worth about $15,000, was stolen in mid-January, and the second, worth about $6000, was stolen in mid-March. We lost several Macintoshes, screens, and a scanner," he said. Lagace said he doubted there was a connection between the two thefts.

All of the TELAC equipment was MIT-insured and had been replaced, Lagace said. "We had to pay a $1000 deductible for each event, but the real cost was in lost time and productivity," he said.

CSR was also robbed twice, said Eugene A. Magnier G, who works in the office where the equipment was taken from. "Personal items, including a CD player, several books and a calculator were stolen on March 11," he said. "On March 14, two hard drives, a keyboard, and a modem were stolen," he added. Magnier estimated the value of the stolen goods at over $1000.

Magnier added that a Campus Police officer investigating the thefts told him that "$50,000 in computer equipment had been found in the possession of students."

"Closing the barn door

after the horse is gone"

Each lab has changed its security procedures as a result of the thefts. Crawley said the changes were an example of "closing the barn door after the horse is gone.

"We've tried to increase awareness [of the possibility of theft] in the lab, and we've bolted some equipment to the tables, but in a couple months people get complacent until it happens again," he said.

Lagace said SERC has changed the combination on the front door, but has not done anything else. "In a environment like that at MIT, when you start restricting access [to lab facilities], you've lost it. There has to be a certain amount of openness and trust in the community," he said. "We've looked into tying the computers down, but people took screens and keyboards. It's really too bad that there's not a lot to do," he added.

Kenneth Plaks G, who works in CSR with Magnier, said people in the lab were "locking things up better, which is all we really can do."