Last Friday’s hack by Burton-Connor House and the subsequent investigation by MIT police, the Cambridge Fire Department and Cambridge Bomb Squad once again brought to the fore lingering questions regarding the relationship between MIT police and the hacking culture on campus. This most recent event especially highlighted the need for MIT students, administrators, and police to develop a common understanding of the obligations each group holds in our unique community.
While we do not claim to assign malicious intent to the officers that responded to the incident last Friday morning — clearly there was a failure in the process. Residents of Burton-Conner House should not be put in the position where they are threatened with tens of thousands of dollars in fines for their role in continuing a campus tradition in a harmless, if ill-considered manner.
The responsibility for ensuring that such a reaction is not repeated in the future must be shared by both students in the hacking community and by the MIT Police. Students have the obligation to provide confidential tips to the police for any hack that might be construed as a threat to public safety or to those tasked with the hack’s removal. Administrators should ensure that policy is in place to protect those providing such tips from punishment or prosecution.
On the other hand, officers of the MIT Police needs to be made more intimately aware of (and sensitive to) the unique characteristics and traditions of the Institute. The DTYD event — one of the best known traditions associated with Burton-Conner — has been a fixture on campus since the early 1970s and has long been preceded by a hack to advertise the event. The party itself is even registered with the MIT Police.
The fact that members of the campus police did not recognize the yearly DTYD hack reflects a need for the force to redouble their efforts in understanding the student community. A deeper understanding of the hacking culture and student culture in general will not only help officers make MIT a safer place, it will also help prevent future misunderstandings which may needlessly tie up the personnel and resources of Cambridge’s public safety departments.
Friday’s incident should be seen as a great opportunity for hackers and the MIT police to learn from mistakes. Hackers should be vigilant in ensuring that hacks do not cause undue concern and be conscious of the response it may illicit. In turn, MIT police must work towards developing a deeper understanding of the hacking tradition and MIT’s unique campus dynamic.
Michael McGraw-Herdeg has recused himself from this editorial.