Last night, MIT Director of Facilities and Security John DiFava and Captain Albert F. Pierce Jr. met with about sixty students in East Campus’ Talbot Lounge for an hour-long question and answer session on hacking. DiFava suggested that his top priority is keeping hackers safe, but ultimately said that the MIT community needs to have a large discussion about how hacking should be addressed on campus.
Alluding to hacking-related arrests at the Faculty Club and the Plasma Science and Fusion Center over the past two years, DiFava began the evening by expressing his awareness of the power vested in the police department.
“That word, ‘you’re under arrest’ stays with you for the rest of your life,” said DiFava.
Given the gravity of an arrest, DiFava said that he prefers not to escalate incidents to that level. Since January, there have only been about thirty arrests, most of which did not involve MIT community members. In addition, he added that his personal experience growing up in Boston made him sympathetic to the ways of college students.
“I’m 56, but I wasn’t born 56,” said DiFava. “I was your quintessential city kid, so I know what it’s like. I just didn’t get caught.”
Pierce echoed DiFava’s sentiments, saying that resolving hacking issues requires mutual respect between the police and students.
DiFava said that his current position is more difficult than his previous job as a state police officer in part because of the Institute’s tradition of hacking. Whereas most crimes off-campus are black-and-white, hacking presents a grey area — there are no concrete rules to follow.
“I’d rather deal with another prison riot than this hacking,” said DiFava.
Because of the lack of clear guidelines, individual officers who respond to incidents are faced with the difficult task of deciding how to handle each individual case.
“They’re not getting any guidance — and that’s not fair”, he said. “My feeling [is] tell me how you want me to play it.”
When asked to clarify what he meant by guidance, DiFava suggested that President Susan J. Hockfield, the students, faculty, and all relevant members of the MIT community need to come together to discuss how they feel this tradition ought to be preserved. However, there was also skepticism that such a conference will occur, primarily because hacking is still a nameless operation.
Whatever happens, DiFava said he believes safety should be at the center of any future policy on the MIT tradition. He referred to an incident Friday night where a steam pipe exploded in the sub-basement of Building 66. “Imagine if a hacker had been nearby,” he said.
DiFava added that there are legal problems to giving hackers free reign. “The longer [hacking] goes without control, the more liable MIT might be for not exercising due diligence,” he said.
Students were also curious about the campus police department’s policy on escalating cases to the Cambridge District Court. DiFava responded that both he and the city would prefer that on-campus incidents be handled by MIT Police.
He explained that Cambridge Police are almost never found on campus unless they are performing traffic duty. Most episodes on campus end at the Committee on Discipline, but particularly serious crimes, including those involving an arrest, make their way to Cambridge District Court.
DiFava said the incidents at the Faculty Club and the Plasma Science and Fusion Center in recent years were escalated because those involved initially attempted to elude responding officers. In both cases, police decided to file breaking and entering charges based on evidence that the involved students gained unauthorized access to locked areas.
“If you have a space that’s locked, and you enter that space, it’s a B-and-E”, DiFava said.
DiFava’s definition was met with dissent from attendees, with one mentioning that hacking invariably involves access to locked areas. This underscored the discord within the MIT community about how to best deal with hacking. DiFava recalled receiving e-mails from an indignant professor whose office was entered in the June incident at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, while also receiving complaints that the incident was blown out of proportion. There is simply no current consensus among community members, he said.
Still, both DiFava and Pierce said they don’t believe the hacking tradition is going away.
“We’re not going to prevent [hacking]”, said Pierce.
The two made a distinction between those hackers — the “great part of the hacking community” — that have performed some of the most notable and legendary hacks (including placing a police car on top of the Great Dome in 1994) and what they called the “wannabes.” Real hackers, they said, don’t get caught. The MIT Police are most concerned about the “wannabe” hackers because they are fearful that the hackers’ inexperience may result in injuries.
Among the controversial statements by DiFava at the meeting was one in which he stated he wasn’t sure those involved in the Faculty Club and Plasma Fusion Center incidents were hackers. DiFava, Pierce, and the attendees debated whether the definition of a hacker included those who merely explored tunnels, shafts, and other secluded areas without the intention of putting up a hack.
DiFava said he believes the hacking controversy could be resolved if hackers were to notify police before attempting hacks and risking encounters with police.
“Ideally, I’d like hackers to have enough trust in us to tell us what will happen, where it will happen, before it happens,” said DiFava. But given the secrecy of the hacking community and the loss of former Director of Admissions and hacker advocate Marilee Jones, DiFava said he does not know how this can become a reality.
At the end of the meeting, DiFava urged students to regard the MIT Police as positive members of the community.
“Rather than listen to rumors, contact us,” DiFava said.