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Staffer investigated for alleged software piracy

A 23-year-old MIT computer systems analyst is on administrative leave following a raid on Dec. 11 by law enforcement officials, who issued search warrants relating to a software piracy ring allegedly involving 62 individuals in six nations.

US agents working with MIT Information Systems personnel and Campus Police seized three computers in the Department of Economics, forcing a temporary shutdown of the department's computer network. The FBI and the US Customs Service questioned a systems analyst in the department, whose home also was included in the raid.

Worldwide, scores of computers were examined at 100 sites, including 27 US cities, to check whether they had been used to store and distribute pirated software.

Federal authorities claimed that the piracy ring stole and distributed software, often before it was available to the public. These included Microsoft Windows, firewall/security software, copyrighted computer games, music videos and movies, among them "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Monsters, Inc."

A group known as the "warez" community allegedly obtained software from industry insiders or by cracking computer codes. They then allegedly distributed it "not for profit, but rather for the challenge and fun of it," the Customs Service said in a news release. Other groups "then reproduce and distribute it for profit," according to the agency.

The investigation targeted people at major universities, businesses and homes in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

The Boston Globe interviewed the MIT staff member and identified him as Christopher Tresco, 23, a systems analyst in economics. The newspaper reported Tresco told them he "regrettably got involved in stuff I shouldn't have." To date, he has not been charged with a crime by authorities.

Laura Avakian, vice president for human resources, said he is on administrative leave while an MIT investigation continues.


James D. Bruce, vice president for Information Systems, issued a warning on software piracy. "If true, this is a very serious violation of MIT's rules and the law," he said. "The violations would include misuse of copyrighted materials and software, overloading the MIT system and using expensive bandwidth that MIT has to pay for. We have been cooperating in the investigation."

As noted in MIT's Policies and Procedures, "MIT's computing and networking facilities and services are to be used for Institute purposes only and not for the benefit of private individuals or other organizations without authorization. Unauthorized access to and use of MIT computer and network services violates this policy." The policy is section 13.2.3 (Responsible Use of MIT Computers, Networks and Telephones).

No arrests were made in the United States but four people were arrested overseas, according to the justice department.

Customs officials said university raids also took place at Duke, Purdue and the University of California at Los Angeles, among others. They said those involved may be subject to charges of conspiracy to violate 18 USC 2319, Criminal Copyright Infringement, and 17 USC 101, the No Electronic Theft ("Net") Act, concerning the illegal reproduction and distribution of copyrighted software. The investigation is continuing.

The Customs Service alleged that "in the early 1990s, groups of computer hackers working in underground networks organized into competitive gangs to illegally obtain computer software, games and movies for posting on the Internet for illegal distribution."

The raids combined three separate operations: Operation Buccaneer, by the justice department, Customs and the US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia; Operation Bandwidth, by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the EPA Office of the Inspector General and the US Attorney's Office in Nevada; and Operation Digital Piratez, an undercover operation by the FBI's Boston field office, supervised by the US attorney for New Hampshire.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 19, 2001.

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