On May 21, Justice Margot Botsford of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ordered police to return computer equipment that they had seized from Boston College student Riccardo Calixte in March. Police had obtained a warrant and seized the computer equipment on the basis of three alleged acts committed by Calixte: (a) forging an e-mail to a Boston College mailing list purporting to be from his roommate, Jesse Bennefield, claiming to "come out" as gay and announcing his membership on a gay dating site; (b) illegally downloading movies to his computer; and (c) hacking into the school's grading system to change grades for students. Justice Botsford ruled that on the one hand, even if Calixte had sent the forged e-mail, that did not constitute a crime, and on the other hand, the documentation supporting the search warrant had made only cursory references to the downloaded movies and the grade-hacking, not enough to support the standard of evidence required for a warrant.
The EFF was right to argue on Calixte's behalf that forging an e-mail to a mailing list does not constitute "obtaining computer services by fraud or misrepresentation" and hence does not violate Massachusetts's computer crime statutes. Unfortunately for future defendants in the same situation, the judge's ruling suggests that the court might have upheld the warrant even if the police had only pretended to care more about the alleged crimes committed by Calixte -- the hacking into the school's grading system, and the downloading of movies -- and less about the sending of the forged e-mail, which the courts found not to be a crime.
A portion of the judge's decision reads:
He [Jesse Bennefield, Calixte's former roommate and the "informant" whose tip led to the issuance of the search warrant] stated, among other things, that "he has observed Mr. Calixte hack into the BC grading system that is used by professors to change grades for students"; he also told [police detective] Christopher that "Mr. Calixte has a cache of approximately 200+ illegally downloaded movies as well as music from the internet."
The affidavit does not reveal any investigatory steps taken as a result of this January 28, 2009, conversation between Bennefield and Christopher. Rather, the bulk of the affidavit is devoted to a discussion of two email messages, apparently sent from the Google and Yahoo email services...
Moreover, although Bennefield reported this allegedly criminal conduct in late January, Detective Christopher did not seek a search warrant until March 30, 2009, two months later, and the affidavit does not reveal any effort to verify or follow up on any of the complaints, even by asking Bennefield for further details. By contrast, the claim that Calixte sent false emails is supported by two pages of detailed information, listing the steps taken to determine who sent the emails, the time they were sent, and the evidence suggesting that they were sent from Calixte's computer.
In sum, the principal focus of the affidavit was on the emails. Faced with the reality that the alleged email activity was probably not illegal, the Commonwealth now seeks to justify the search warrant, post hoc, based on an affidavit that fails to indicate either the time or the place of the criminal activity its informant claims to have witnessed, and that reflects no effort or attempt to verify the sketchy information supplied...
In other words: Even if the police didn't really care about the pirated movies and the grade-hacking, it might have helped to make the warrant stick if they had made more of a passing reference to those issues in the motion for a warrant, at least according to the reasoning expressed by the judge.
Compared to the analysis that the police conducted in order to determine whether Calixte sent the e-mails (such as looking up the records to see if the IP address was registered to his user account at the time), there's probably not much that the police could have done to determine if Calixte had downloaded any movies illegally, short of seizing his computer. Even if the campus had a log of all remote sites that Calixte had connected to, there would be no way to determine what he might have downloaded over a peer-to-peer protocol that encrypts downloaded data, as most peer-to-peer programs do.
But ironically, the fact that there is so little the police could have done to follow up on that investigation, would have made it even easier for them to create the appearance that they cared about the downloaded movies, even if they didn't! All they would have to do is say, in fancier language: "We asked the campus network if they could tell us what Calixte downloaded from various IP addresses, and they couldn't tell us anything. We asked them if they had any way of knowing what files might reside currently on Calixte's laptop, and they couldn't tell us anything." Basically: "We tried. We hit a wall right away. But we tried, and that proves we care." The warrant application as it was written, might as well have said that with regard to the issue of the downloaded movies: "We didn't try at all."
From the informant's side, the judge said that there was not enough evidence to support the issuance of a warrant because Bennefield's affidavit fails
"to state Bennefield's basis of knowledge that Calixte has in fact downloaded files to his computer, or that they are 'illegal.' Contrast Commonwealth v. Beliard, 443 Mass. 79 85 (2004) (named informant's basis of knowledge established by firsthand observation, furnished with detail and specificity)."
OK, so if you're a potential "informant" planning on ratting out your roommate, and you think that your roommate has downloaded some movies illegally, just ask him point-blank if you can see a couple of seconds of his clip of Wolverine, or some other movie in current release of which the 3,000 screens it is legally playing on does not include your roommate's laptop. Then you can "furnish with detail and specificity" the accusations that you want to make later.
So maybe the police have learned their lesson and they'll know how to get around this roadblock next time. I still wouldn't call that a tragedy for civil liberties, at least with regards to the acts alleged in this case. The EFF wisely took no position on whether Calixte actually did commit any of the acts that he was accused of, only that the police had no right to seize his equipment. But if the police can ever prove that someone hacked into their school's grading system, that person should be punished; that's not a civil liberties issue. Even downloading movies, which we tend to think of as a more victimless crime, means that for every dollar saved by someone watching a movie for free in their dorm room, the shortfall has to be made up by paying ticket buyers.
And if Calixte actually did send the forged e-mail pretending to be from Jesse Bennefield, then while the courts were correct to rule that that was not a crime, Bennefield could probably sue him in civil court, especially now that the police have done all the heavy lifting of uncovering the evidence. According to the warrant affidavit, the message to the Boston College mailing lists was sent from an IP address that had been registered to a computer with the same network name as Calixte's laptop. The e-mail also included a screen shot of a fake profile for Bennefield on the www.adam4adam.com site, and the network logs showed that an IP address registered to Calixte was the only IP address in that dorm to visit the gay dating site www.adam4adam.com in the five days prior to the e-mail being sent. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but if you had to bet everything you owned on a "Yes" or "No" answer to the question of whether Calixte sent the e-mail, which would you pick?
The EFF was right to go to court for the narrowly prescribed legal principles that (a) forging an e-mail to a mailing list does not constitute "obtaining computer services by fraud or misrepresentation" or "unauthorized access to a computer system," and that (b) vague accounts of illegally downloaded movies or rumors of hacking into a school grading system, are insufficient for the issuance of a search warrant. But that doesn't mean that the police can't overcome those obstacles next time, and it doesn't mean we should hold up Riccardo Calixte as some kind of cyber-liberties hero.