A group of high school students from Kutztown, PA who were charged earlier this month with felony computer trespassing and computer theft have been offered a deal to drop charges. They have agreed to do 15 hours of community service, write letters of apology, and attend a class on personal responsibility.
The students had each been given an Apple iBook to use during the school year. When they found the administrator password written on the bottom of the laptops, they used it to install iChat among other contraband programs. After the school changed the password the students figured out the new one, disabled the monitoring software, and even used the monitoring software to snoop on the administrators.
There was much public outcry from the students' community and on the internet when the charges were initially announced. Many saw the charges as heavy handed, and not motivated by a wish to deter such behavior but out of the administrators embarrassment at having been outsmarted by a bunch of teenagers. Had the students been convicted of the felony charges they would forever have had to check "yes" on forms that ask, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
James Shrawder, the uncle of one of the defendants created a website, cutusabreak.org, which argued that the charges were overly harsh and should be dropped. Upon hearing that the students had been offered a deal, he said, "It's about as mild as you can go. It's more of a face-saving measure."
Some of the defendants are considering not taking the deal, believing they did not break the law. Their principled stand may, however, be outweighed by the grave consequences a conviction might have. Besides becoming a convicted felon, sentences could include juvenile detention.
and a hefty legal bill (but then, they'd likely not pay for that themselves...).
I'd consider their actions at most to be a civil offense, except for the snooping (which may have been illegal). If the uni was stupid enough to write down a root password in cleartext on the case of the machine and then expect students (considered the smartest people around in general though I sometimes have doubts) to not figure out what it is I'd say they have to face the consequences themselves. If I write the PIN to my bankcard on the card and then give the card to someone else telling them they can do whatever they want with it except get money from my bank account it's me who's responsible when they take the money anyway. This is similar.