A new bill before the Senate could make it a federal crime to tamper with a school web site, an offense that could be punishable by up to year in prison. But detractors fear the language of the bill is overly broad and could punish pranksters too severely.

The School Web Site Protection Act (S. 1252) was introduced by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., as a response to an incident in which the Lumberton (N.J.) Township Public Schools web site was changed to display threatening language.

According to Torricelli’s office, current law specifies only that web sites with a federal interest, such as government or bank web sites, are protected from computer hackers and cyber-terrorists. Torricelli said he became aware of this loophole after reading a recent news article in the Trenton (N.J.) Times.

The threat posted on the district’s site referenced the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. That highly publicized incident—which resulted in the deaths of 12 students and one teacher—has been blamed for a number of violent “copycat” incidents and has raised serious concerns about violence in schools.

The internet threat reportedly caused an outcry in the Lumberton community and led many parents to keep their children home out of fear for their safety.

According to a news release from Torricelli’s office, district officials were shocked when an investigation determined that no prosecutable offence had been committed, because under federal law tampering with a non-government web site is not considered criminal trespassing unless at least $5,000 in damages are incurred.

State anti-hacking laws were unable to take precedence in the incident, because the person who made the threat was from California, not New Jersey.

The Torricelli act would make it illegal for anyone to tamper with a school web site, regardless of the cost of the damages.

“Computer hackers who prey upon unsuspecting schools, striking fear in the hearts of entire communities with threats of violence, cannot go unpunished,” said Torricelli. “In an era when parents, students, and educators across America are increasingly worried about the safety of our schools, we must take every opportunity to shield the learning process from those who are seeking to disrupt it.”

Should the bill become law, the penalty for tampering with a school’s web site would be a maximum of one year in prison and a monetary fine yet to be determined, said Torricelli spokesman Adam Herbsman.

The legislation would apply to public and private schools at all levels and would not change any existing laws regarding tampering with government web sites or illegally accessing protected materials.

But some technology advocates fear the wording of the law is too broad and may result in unfair punishments for seemingly harmless activities.

S. 1252 says anyone convicted of committing an act that “knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally affects or impairs without authorization a computer of an elementary school or secondary school or institution of higher learning,” is punishable under the proposed law.

“The breadth of this bill is troubling. The use of the language ‘affects’ really does sweep in a wide range of activity that the average user may think is completely appropriate,” said Paula Bruening, staff counsel for Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

“I think the bill misses the mark,” Jim Dempsey, CDT’s deputy director, told Wired News. “Sending one unsolicited eMail affects a computer. If I send an eMail to my student’s teacher and I didn’t have her permission, I violate the act.”

Some detractors are even more succinct. Andrew Grosso, a D.C.-area lawyer and former assistant United States attorney, told Wired, “It’s a stupid bill. Yes, there is a need to protect school computers. No, this bill does not do that.”

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is a major supporter of S. 1252. At NSBA’s annual meeting in San Diego this year, a group of school board delegates met and discussed the Lumberton hacking incident.

The meeting resulted in the following policy statement:

“The NSBA urges the Congress to pass legislation that would make it a federal offense and crime for any person to tamper with or alter a web site of a school district with the purpose to harass, annoy, alarm, terrorize, or otherwise cause serious public inconvenience to the users or potential users of a school district web site and the school community at large, regardless of whether any financial loss to the school district was involved.”

According to Lori Meyer, director of federal legislation for NSBA, that statement was a direct response to the incident in Lumberton. She added that a similar bill (to be titled HR 2752) has been introduced by New Jersey lawmakers on the House side.

“Our rationale is that we don’t want law enforcement to have any impediment in working with school districts when they’re trying to ensure a safe learning environment for kids,” said Meyer.

“We do think that there needs to be some sort of authority for this issue,” said Mary Conk, legislative specialist for the American Association of Schools Administrators (AASA). “There is a concern when offenses happen that fall outside the jurisdiction of the school district or the state, and there has to be some way to regulate that.”

But Conk said AASA urges lawmakers “to proceed with caution and ensure that we don’t come up with a bill that encompasses more than it was intended to do.”

Supporters of the bill say chances are good that the language may undergo changes during the legislative process anyway. “Few bills are ever enacted as introduced,” said Herbsman.

“As it moves through the legislative process, we’re going to seek input from others and look to broaden support wherever we can,” he said. “That includes listening to those who have concerns about the way the bill is written right now.”

The NSBA’s Meyer agreed, saying, “Both the Torricelli bill and the [House] bill are great starting points. We’ve been consulting about ways that the [Torricelli] bill can be improved. We want to clarify and improve the law.

“It’s still early—we’ll have to see how the process moves,” she said.

Links:

Lumberton Township Public Schools
http://www.lumberton.k12.nj.us

Sen. Robert Torricelli
http://www.senate.gov/~torricelli

American Association of Schools Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org