Oxford eases penalty on student hackers

December 10, 2004

Two Oxford University student journalists who were suspended after they hacked into the university's computer system to expose security flaws have had their punishments reduced on appeal, writes Phil Baty.

The university confirmed this week that Patrick Foster and Roger Waite will be fined £150 and £120 respectively, after their successful appeal against suspensions that were widely attacked as too harsh. Mr Foster would have had to repeat an entire year as a result of his original punishment.

The Times Higher first reported in July that the students faced disciplinary action over an article they wrote in the Oxford Student newspaper, which Mr Foster now edits, detailing how easy it was to hack into the university's CCTV cameras and to eavesdrop on electronic conversations.

The students, who voluntarily handed over material to the university authorities, asserted that they were acting in the public interest and argued that they were entitled, as journalists, to free speech.

But they were charged with breaking university rules on several counts, and were each suspended for several months on the orders of the university's court of summary jurisdiction.

Supported by a barrister working pro bono , Ben Rayment of Monckton chambers, they successfully argued in a newly constituted, independent internal court, that the punishments were disproportionate.

Mr Foster said: "Having had this hanging over my head for six months, I'm very glad that common sense eventually prevailed. Rustication (being sent down) was a ridiculously disproportionate penalty, and I'm delighted that the disciplinary court recognised this.

"The only bad thing to come out of this is that I no longer have an excuse not to do any work."

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