Technology in Government
February 1999

York U receives kudos in high-tech arrest

Student nabbed by RCMP for theft, possession of porn

by Shaun Markey

A York University student arrested in mid-December for possession of child pornography, circulation of obscene material and illegal software distribution could face a combined maximum penalty of 22 years in prison, a fine of up to $1 million, or both.

And while the RCMP can boast once again they got their man in this case 29-year-old Wei-Tai Lee of North York, Ont. it was not without the help of a York University network administrator who tipped them off.

And that's the kind of co-operation from Internet service providers (ISPs) police would like to see mandatory, says Const. Carolyn Blais of the Newmarket RCMP.

"It's a very tedious investigation going the other route gathering enough information to go into the ISP with a search warrant", says Blais, who calls the case unique. "[It] would be wonderful if the ISPs had something in place where they were obligated to report any kind of misuse of their systems, and that's not happening."

According to the RCMP, Lee was arrested after a six-month investigation.

When police seized his hard drive, they found numerous images of child pornography and obscene images while in the process of collecting forensic evidence of illegal software distribution.

The student's file transfer protocol site was suspected of being part of a global group of 10 mirrored Web sites that also allegedly engaged in the distribution of pirated software ranging from business applications to high-end developer tools.

Gord Blair, the manager of network operations at York, first thought something was wrong when he noticed a huge change in the university's outbound traffic.

"I first thought someone was hacking and taking out our student registry or something", he says.

"We looked at it and found out the traffic was coming from a single user in residence. At that point we looked to see what he was up to and found what we believe was a 'Where is?' site (a site for the distribution of illegal software). Then we decided we would call in the RCMP and shut it down since we don't approve of such things."

Asked why York took the initiative to go the police, Blair says, "it seemed the right thing to do . . . York has a stated policy that we don't pirate software and we won't support it."

But it's unlikely the university will change its policies in response to this particular case, he says.

"It would surprise me if they (the university) did. Academic sanctions are not something they do easily."

Plus, he argues, "this is a pretty extreme case. I think in general we're talking about kids that deserve at least one chance."

That reluctance to impose such sanctions could change, however, according to Allan Steel, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft (CAAST).

Steel, who says Lee's Web site was only one of more than 4,000 such Web sites that provide illegal software for download, says educational institutions are beginning to take such activities much more seriously by taking steps such as expelling students who violate copyright laws.

Like the employer who can be held vicariously liable for employees who use their computer systems and networks to perpetrate software piracy, universities can likewise find themselves in a similar bind, he says.

"The employer if they haven't taken steps that they can defend can also be susceptible to damages as a result of the employee, or in this case, the student", he says. "I really don't know enough about this case that I can comment on whose software it was. If it was the university's, there is a specific liability that could be there."

CAAST believes software theft at Canadian universities is even higher than the national average, Steel said in a press release on the Lee arrest.

However, he later backed away from that comment, saying instead that "I would shy away from saying it (software piracy) is more rampant at universities and colleges."

One way CAAST is trying to make such activities less acceptable among students, he says, is not to focus so much on whether stealing software is right or wrong, but to educate students about the issue of intellectual property.

Copyright © 1999 by Plesman Communications. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.