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Rooftop Fines Will Soon Cost Up to $500

By Kelley Rivoire
EDITOR IN CHIEF

Those in the hacking community may want to start lining their pockets — starting Jan. 2006, first-time fines for being found on the rooftops of MIT buildings will increase from an automatic $50 to a maximum of $500, with a possibility of an appeal to the Committee on Discipline.

The new policy, decided upon in June, follows years of discussion by some members of the administration about how to treat hacks, which both bring the Institute fame and present growing safety concerns, leading to what Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 calls “kind of a contradiction.”

The change is not intended to curtail the ingenious hacks that make MIT famous, but rather to implement a “case-specific” policy that focuses on safety, said Robert M. Randolph, senior associate dean for students. “I think MIT has to be very clear about how we understand the value and dangers of hacks,” he said. “MIT is not out to destroy hacking.”

Some students, however, said the higher fines would only increase the danger factor by encouraging them to run if discovered on a roof.

Under the new policy, Randolph said he believes the average fine will be between $100 and $200 dollars, but “we ought to have conversations about it.” The automatic $50 fine has been the policy throughout his 26 years at MIT, he said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator based on the Consumer Price Index, what cost $50 at that time would now cost around $135.

While Randolph and Clay have been among a small set discussing the policy for years, the announcement of the change came as a surprise to others, including the COD Chair Margery Resnick. “No one has informed me about anything,” she said. “Generally, the COD would know about that kind of change.”

The failure to notify Resnick was “an oversight,” Randolph said. “We weren’t trying to slip anything by.”

The new policy is not yet available in print or online; the MIT Police Safety Handbook (http://web.mit.edu/cp/www/safety_handbook_05.pdf) refers readers to http://web.mit.edu/discipline, which does not currently list the policy. Randolph said he was surprised the new policy had not been posted yet. “Sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing.”

Fines intended as deterrent

The new policy was driven by a nationwide concern about stronger campus security in the post-September 11 world, as well as concerns about liability, Randolph said. “What became fairly clear was that students felt that fines were fairly low,” he said. “There was a need for changes.”

Randolph also said that accidents, such as that of a then-freshman student who fell through a roof in 1999, led MIT’s legal counsel to worry about a perception that MIT was not serious about its policies. “Safety is our fundamental concern,” he said.

Over the last three years, there has been “a great deal more emphasis on campus security,” Clay said. If certain areas of campus were found to have been improperly accessed, “we’d all be in big trouble,” and the federal government might step in, he said. “The last thing we want is to have to report” someone.

There’s a “set of deterrents we could put into place in rising levels of seriousness,” Randolph said. “You start with the least onerous.”

“It’s an assumption that you’d think twice if it’s going to cost you money,” he said.

Some students, however, disagreed that the fine increase would minimize rooftop violations, suggesting instead that the new policy might create additional safety concerns.

“I’m going to be more inclined to run away because $500 is not something I can afford,” said one student who leads rooftop tours for new students and spoke on condition on anonymity. “Tours are still going to happen. It’s just going to cause the people who are giving them to be more likely to run away if caught,” she said. “It’s not safe to run on the roof. Having a $500 fine is more a problem with safety than creating a deterrent for hackers.”

“If the fine is at a reasonable amount … it’s not so crushing,” said Undergraduate Association Vice President Jessica H. Lowell, who has also served as a UA senator for East Campus. “If it could be so high that they’re really afraid, … then they’re going to run.” Lowell said that a fine of $100 might be a reasonable balance between the need for security and the preservation of hacking culture.

She has talked to students and alumni about the new policy and will continue to work on the issue, she said.

Running from the police would be contrary to the hackers’ implicit code of conduct, Randolph said. “The hacker code has been that if you get caught, you get caught, and you don’t do anything foolish.”

New policy allows more flexibility

Under the present system, a $50 fine is automatically imposed by the Office of Student Discipline, with no possibility for appeal. Under the new policy, following the assessment of a fine of up to $500 by the Office of Student Discipline, the chair of the COD would be consulted about disciplinary responses, and a student might be able to request an appeal, perhaps including a hearing by the COD, Randolph said.

For enrolled students, first-time fines will be up to $500, second offenses will lead to fines of up to $1,000, and third offenses to fines of up to $1,500 with the possibility of additional disciplinary action, according to a copy of the policy provided by Randolph.

Students’ fines will be billed directly to their accounts. The punishments for non-students are more stringent, and include becoming persona non grata automatically on a second offense, and treatment as a trespasser for a third offense. Additionally, an earlier draft of the policy stipulated that MIT Police collect identification from those apprehended to be retrieved later at the police headquarters; this was later removed at the request of the MIT Police, Randolph said.

The new policy will allow for different punishments, a flexibility impossible before, Randolph said, by allowing the chair of COD and students on the COD to decide punishments.

“Clever incidents are not being prohibited,” Clay said. Rather, he said, the intent is to punish those engaging in actions that pose safety concerns.

New roles for MIT Police, COD

Under the new policy, some discretion would pass to the MIT Police and the Committee on Discipline.

“I’ve been assured that the Campus Police know the difference between hacking and not,” Clay said. “I trust that the Campus Police will act responsibly.”

The MIT Police were involved throughout discussions about the change in policy, Clay said. MIT Chief of Police John DiFava was not available for comment.

Between now and January, anyone caught on a rooftop by the MIT Police will be warned about the pending fine increase, Randolph said.

“I do not think students should be punished for hacks that enhance the Institute, as long as they’re not endangering themselves or others,” said Resnick, who chairs the COD and would be notified and consulted about all violations as part of the new policy. “The only question is if there are risks,” she said.

Should the COD be involved in a disciplinary hearing regarding a rooftop violation, safety would be a primary concern in the discussions, said David A. Nedzel ’07, one of five students serving on the COD. He said that if the policy requests a fine, then a fine must be levied, but “there’s certainly a lot of room for leniency, especially in the case of new students getting oriented to MIT who may not necessarily be familiar with the rules.”

However, he said, if COD becomes involved in changing the policy, he would strongly oppose the fines. “I don’t believe that a punitive fine is appropriate for a rooftop violation,” Nedzel said. “I don’t believe they do much to affect behavior.”

Stephen M. Hou, a graduate student serving on the COD who attended MIT as an undergraduate, said he believes that rules should be followed to the letter. “If a student knows that the fine is so high and goes on the roof anyway, then they deserve to be slapped with that fine,” he said. “If someone was coerced into going on the roof, that might be a case” where the fine should be reduced, however.

He said that from a perspective of safety, “if someone did do a hack that endangered students, which is not part of the hacking policy, then I think that there would not only be a fine, but further disciplinary action.”

Policy was long-discussed

Changes to the fine policy were suggested as many as 10 years ago, Randolph said.

About three years ago, he said, a meeting between members of the hacking community and then-President Charles M. Vest “established early on that students understood the need for safety.” The “hacking community understood the need for tightening up their controls,” he said.

The UA president at the time, Josiah D. Seale G, was the last student to be involved in discussions about the policy change, Randolph said.

Seale said that he met with Randolph once or twice, and at that time publicized the possible future changes to the hacking community, but this seems to have “vanished from a lot of people’s memory,” in the years since.

The new policy allows MIT to set a uniform fine policy, he said; under the old policy, fines were higher for violations on the Green Building, which “looks like they’re encouraging hacking,” he said.

Seale said now, as then, he supports for alternative policies. “Make it so you have to work, and you have to care about getting up there.”

MIT needs to “try to find a way to walk the middle ground to allow the culture of hacking to continue and at the same time have maximum safety,” Randolph said. “On the one hand, we’re not a police state. On the other, we can’t have an entirely laissez-faire system.”