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Systems Administrator Resigns After Piracy Raids

By Jennifer DeBoer and Keith Winstein

Christopher S. Tresco, the MIT Economics Department system administrator alleged to have illegally distributed computer software from the systems he ran, resigned on Jan. 4.

Federal agents had executed a search warrant at MIT on Dec. 11, seizing three computers from the Economics Department, MIT said in a press release. United States Customs Service investigators also questioned Tresco that day, seizing one computer from his apartment in Allston.

The seizures were part of a global crackdown on software trading, or “warez” groups. Jeffrey I. Schiller, a network manager for MIT Information Systems, said that by taking such a large-scale synchronized action to disband the ring, federal investigators “may believe they sent a message.”

Three separate multi-agency Federal operations, along with foreign law-enforcement counterparts, executed over one hundred search warrants nearly simultaneously worldwide on Dec. 11, the Department of Justice said in a press release. Seizures were conducted in at least 27 United States cities and six foreign countries.

Tresco allegedly involved in piracy

Although Tresco, 23, has not been arrested or charged with a crime, Federal officials assert that he was a member of the secretive Internet software trading ring known as “DrinkOrDie” and that he used his system administration position at the Economics Department to illegally distribute software, The Boston Globe reported on Dec. 12. The report quoted Tresco as saying, “I regrettably got involved with some stuff I shouldn’t have and to anybody I affected, I’m sorry.”

Tresco’s post as the Economics Department system administrator may have been valuable to the ring, Schiller said, because of MIT’s high-speed connection, lack of firewalls, and the fact that, as system administrator, Tresco would have been in control of the file servers allegedly used to illegally distribute software. “It’s like watching the watcher,” Schiller said.

MIT cooperated in investigation

It was not immediately clear what Tresco had been doing or if anybody else at MIT knew about it. Tresco could not be reached for comment. Olivier Blanchard, head of the Economics Department, declined to comment. Tresco’s co-workers in the Economics Department computer systems team were either unavailable or declined to comment.

Of the reported Federal allegations against Tresco, James D. Bruce, Vice President for Information Systems, said in a written statement, “If true, this is a very serious violation of MIT’s rules and the law. The violations would include misuse of copyrighted materials and software, overloading the MIT system, and using expensive bandwidth that MIT has to pay for.” Bruce pledged MIT’s cooperation in the investigation, and a special agent at the U.S. Customs Service office in Boston, who declined to give his name, confirmed that “various parts of MIT were very cooperative in assisting the investigation.”

Schiller doubted that MIT would itself be implicated in the investigation, but added that investigators planned to search through records kept on the seized computers and might seek to charge individuals who server logs indicated were frequent traders.

Immediately after the raids, Tresco continued to work at MIT but was “shifted to different tasks,” according to a Dec. 13 report in the Boston Herald. The MIT News Office reported that Tresco came in to work on Dec. 12 to help the investigators sort things out but subsequently went on administrative leave. Tresco resigned as of January 4, according to the MIT News Office. Laura Avakian, Vice President for Human Resources, had conducted an investigation into the matter.

‘DrinkOrDie’ hacked Windows 95

DrinkOrDie, which was a major target of the raids, is credited with publishing Microsoft Windows 95 on the Internet two weeks before its official release and the development and publication of one of the first tools to allow the trading of perfect copies of DVD movies over the Internet.

Bob Kruger, Vice President of Enforcement for the Business Software Alliance, an industry trade group which was credited by the Justice Department in assisting the investigations, said that some of the groups targeted by the Dec. 11 raids “appear to be responsible for much of the trafficking that’s taking place today.”

However, Kruger was not optimistic that the raids would have an immediate effect on the roughly $12 billion in lost revenue from which the Alliance claims its members suffer each year, saying a decline would come when “people engaged in software piracy come to better understand the serious consequences of that type of activity.”

Operations continue worldwide

In addition to MIT, investigators carried out raids Dec. 11 at the University of California at Los Angeles, Purdue University, Duke University, the University of Oregon, Northeastern University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The three Federal investigations that conducted the raids were known as “Operation Bandwidth”, “Operation Digital Piratez”, and “Operation Buccaneer.”

The Justice Department characterized Bandwidth and Digital Piratez as undercover operations involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while Buccaneer, which performed the investigation at MIT, was conducted by the Customs Service with DrinkOrDie as one of its primary targets. Unconfirmed online reports attempting to catalogue information on the raids indicated that DrinkOrDie was “dead 100 percent” as a result.

Although news reports quoted officials as claiming that arrests were imminent immediately after the first raids, no arrests or criminal charges have been reported in the United States. Police in London announced on Dec. 12 the arrest of six DrinkOrDie members on charges of conspiracy to defraud, Reuters reported in December. A report Monday by Reuters quotes Allan Doody, a U.S. Customs special agent, as saying the raids have continued, turning up roughly thirty suspects and that agents would again “raid an East Coast university” early this week.

Earlier MIT case inspired law

Tresco may risk punishment under a Federal law created because of a previous case involving an MIT student. According to the government, suspects may be prosecuted under the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act, which provides for criminal copyright infringement penalties of up to three years in prison. Congress enacted the law in 1997 to close the so-called “LaMacchia loophole,” a term supporters of the law used to refer to the government’s unsuccessful 1994 criminal prosecution of then-MIT senior David M. LaMacchia ’95.

The government alleged in an April, 1994 indictment that LaMacchia had operated a file server at MIT to facilitate the illegal exchange of software programs, similar to the reported allegations against Tresco. Because LaMacchia had not personally profited from the endeavor, the government was not able to charge him with criminal copyright infringement, and instead unsuccessfully pursued a charge of wire fraud. The NET Act closed this loophole by making the act of illegally distributing copyrighted works with a total value of over $1,000 within a 180-day period a criminal offense, irrespective of personal profit.