A Montreal school is being widely criticized for expelling a student who hacked into its computer system and helped expose flaws in the system’s security. The student now has been offered jobs by computer security companies, including the one that ran the system he hacked into. In the Internet age, the hacker is celebrated as a hero and the school is pilloried for being an overbearing, defensive holdover from a bygone age. It’s an unfair presumption that needs to be corrected.
Former Dawson College student Ahmed Al-Khabaz was one of two students who discovered a serious flaw in the school’s system last October. According to a press release from Skytech Communications, the company that provides Dawson’s software, the pair immediately reported the breach – the proper thing to do. But Mr. Al-Khabaz then went on and carried out what the company considered to be a “cyber-attack” on the school’s production servers. The company notified the school, and Mr. Al-Khabaz was hauled on the carpet. The company accepted the student’s explanation and noted that he “demonstrated great talent in computer science.” They dropped the matter and offered Mr. Al-Khabaz a job, but Dawson’s administrators felt the student had gone too far and expelled him on the grounds he had violated the college’s code of conduct.
Mr. Al-Khabaz insists he was concerned about the safety of Dawson’s data and points out that he never tried to hide when confronted and never tried to steal any data. Dawson insists that the 20-year-old student continued his hacking in spite of warning him not to, and that it has a duty to uphold its rules. Dawson’s officials are right: Rules exist for a reason, and students cannot expect to break them without consequence. Why have them, otherwise?
The international hacking community is currently up in arms after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, an Internet pioneer who fought for the release of data on the Internet that he considered to be public. Swartz, who had a history of depression, was facing a slew of charges for allegedly downloading publicly funded academic journals from a large database that charged a fee for access. His family and supporters blame overzealous prosecutors for his death; the prosecutors insist – again, quite rightly – that “stealing is stealing.”
In the age of the Internet, the massive downloading for free of music and movies and other copyrighted material has muddied the waters for many people. They seem to have forgotten that privacy rights and copyright laws are among the foundations of our economy. These are things that are not to be shoved aside by the absolutism of Internet activism.