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Student Wipes 6.004 Lab Files, Confesses

By Susan Buchman

A cracking incident in Computation Structures (6.004) erased the saved laboratory work of between one-fourth and one-half of the 250 students in the class.

The event was resolved quickly and quietly after the miscreant student confessed to the professor.

Last Thursday at 5:08 p.m., the person responsible erased the work of students who had not changed the name of their file from its original name, fractal.uasm.

The hack replaced the previous contents of the file with a joke making fun of Bill Gates and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Gill A. Pratt, the lecturer for 6.004.

Class administrators were able to recover files modified on Wednesday, but many students had to redo their work for the lab, which was due on Friday.

Professor agrees to be lenient

Pratt sent out an e-mail to the 6.004 mailing list informing students that if the hacker confessed, he would not be brought before the Committee on Discipline and his identity would be known only to Pratt. Pratt also asked that the culprit write an anonymous apology to the entire class.

The person responsible later confessed and explained precisely what he had done. Pratt said that adjustments were made to the system so that it could not be damaged in the same fashion at some point in the future.

According to Pratt, the student responsible did not have malicious intentions. He and another student were sending each other messages through their lab files.

"I had written a hack that allowed me to send messages to a friend of mine in the class by appending the message to his laboratory code file. This worked for a while, but at one point, due to a bug in my hack, the message got written into everybody's file," the apology letter said.

"I owe apologies to everyone. I am very sorry for the trouble and pain I caused. I just want you to know that I did not mean to destroy your work. I should have known better than to fool around in a file system that contained other people's work," the apology said.

Teaching assistant John Wang '98 said he supported Pratt's decision not to further punish the hacker. "You can't undo the damage that was done, but on the other hand, you can't destroy the kid's career," he said.

"It was an innocent hack that went wrong," Pratt said. "His intent was not to screw it up. I think that punishment should be based on intent."

Deadline informally extended

Initially, Pratt was concerned that the cracking was done in order to disguise the fact that the hacker had been unable to complete the lab. However, this turned out not to be the case.

"I didn't want to formally extend the deadline [for the lab] to seem as if we had caved in," Pratt said. However, Pratt informed the staff that they should be sympathetic to the students affected by the unusual extenuating circumstances.

"We're not going to penalize people for things that are utterly beyond their control," Wang said.

On Sunday, a supposed dialogue between Pratt and Gates was sent out anonymously to the 6.004 mailing list, mocking Pratt for not having found the hacker. The e-mail also disparaged Microsoft and implied that the hack was untraceable because the Microsoft software kept crashing.

In response, Pratt sent out a message stating that the person responsible for the hack had confessed and was not responsible for the latest e-mail. He also pointed out that the 6.004 server used for the lab is not using a Microsoft operating system.

According to Wang, no efforts will be made to trace the sender of the joke e-mail.

Discipline policy hazy

Professor Stephen C. Graves, chair of the Committee on Discipline, said that a student will not come before the Committee unless someone brings charges against him or her.

Graves said that he was unfamiliar with the case and unsure whether a student could bring charges against the hacker even though the professor for the class has refused to.

"Certainly students bring charges forward when there are harassment issues," Graves said.

However, in the cases of misconduct "there is a lot of discretion given to the faculty members. Many professors decide rightly or wrongly that they will handle [discipline] themselves," Graves said.

"Generally, when a case comes in, I will look at it and decide whether we will look at it or it will be handled by a deans' panel," Graves said.