Senior academics under fire for suspending student hackers

November 5, 2004

Three senior academics at Oxford University were accused this week of harshly treating two student journalists, who have been suspended after they uncovered major security flaws in the university's computer system.

One of the students, Patrick Foster, who will miss an academic year as a result of the suspension, vowed to appeal against the decision of the ancient "court of summary jurisdiction", amid accusations that the court was biased towards the university.

University authorities had recommended fines for the students, who voluntarily handed over information to the university after hacking into its computer system as research for an article in the Oxford Student newspaper.

But last week the court suspended Mr Foster, editor of the newspaper, until May, which means he cannot graduate without resitting a year, even though the university's proctors had recommended a £150 fine.

The court, comprising three senior Oxford academics drawn from the university's governing council, also suspended Roger Waite, news editor of the paper, for the rest of the year. His recommended fine was £120.

Neither student will be able to enter any Oxford building, including the library, for the duration of his suspension, known as "rustication".

"The student union supports Patrick and Roger 100 per cent," said Kim Hardman, spokeswoman for Oxford University Student Union. "Everybody in the union believes this punishment does not fit the crime and that they were punished far too harshly."

She said the union had concerns about the court's impartiality. "The fact that it is made up of university representatives, who criticised the students for an 'attack on the university', raises serious questions about their independence and impartiality."

The Times Higher reported in July that the pair were facing possible suspension after they hacked into the university's computer system for the article on security.

They wrote a report detailing how they easily got hold of email passwords for staff and students, hacked into CCTV cameras and eavesdropped on electronic conversations.

During the court hearing, it seemed that the university had accepted the students' defence of free speech - and their assertion that they were acting in the public interest in exposing security flaws that could be rectified as a result - and that it would be lenient.

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