Friday, June 27, 2008


You’ve probably seen the news stories about the two Orange County teen-agers who have been charged with crimes – lots of crimes – for hacking into high school computer systems to change grades and cheat on exams.

As the Orange County Register reported last Wednesday, one of the students, 18-year-old Omar Khan, has been charged with 69 felony counts; the charges include altering public records, unauthorized access to computers, fraud, burglary, identity theft and conspiracy. According to the same source, the other student, Tanvir Singh, also 18, has been charged with four counts of conspiracy, burglary, computer fraud and attempted altering of a public record.

As the
Orange County Register noted, Khan could be sent to prison for up to 38 years if he were to be convicted on all 69 counts, while Singh faces up to 3 years in prison if he were convicted of the charges against him.

Khan is charged with 34 counts of altering a public record, 11 counts of stealing a public record, 7 counts of unauthorized computer access, 6 burglary counts (he apparently physically broke into the school several times), 4 identity theft counts 3 counts of altering a book of records 2 counts of receiving stolen property, 1 count of conspiracy (to do pretty much the above) and 1 count of attempting to alter a public record. I obviously can’t go through all those charges here.

So I'lI focus on Khan because he’s the one with the most counts and the most exposure. Here’s a sample of the charges, at least the ones that focus on computer-predicated crimes. Count 2 of the Felony Complaint – an unauthorized access count -- charges that on or about

and between January 23, 2008 and January 26, 2008, in violation of Section 502(c)(1) of the Penal Code (COMPUTER ACCESS AND FRAUD), a FELONY, OMAR SHAHID KHAN did knowingly and unlawfully access and without permission alter, damage, delete, destroy, and otherwise use data, a computer, a computer system, and a computer network belonging to Tesoro High School and Capistrano Unified School District, in order to devise and execute a scheme and artifice to defraud, deceive, and extort, and to wrongfully control and obtain money, property, and data.
Felony Complaint - People of the State of California v. Khan and Singh, Superior Court of California – County of Orange (Case No. 08HF1157). There are other counts like this, though they’re each based on different instances of gaining unauthorized access (on different dates). As I read section 501(d)(1) of the California Penal Code, the offense charged above “is punishable by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars" or imprisonment "for 16 months, or two or three years, or by both”.

Here’s an identity theft count:
On or about April 17, 2008, in violation of Section 530.5(a) of the Penal Code (IDENTITY THEFT), a FELONY, OMAR SHAHID KHAN did willfully and unlawfully obtain personal identifying information, as defined in Penal Code section 530.55 (b), of Tesoro High School Registrar Valerie D., and did unlawfully use and attempt to use that information for an unlawful purpose, specifically to wit, to access school computer network and grade database program, without the consent of Tesoro High School Registrar Valerie D.
Felony Complaint - People of the State of California v. Khan and Singh, supra. As I read section 530.5(a) of the California Penal Code, the offense charged above is punishable by “a fine, by imprisonment . . . not to exceed one year, or by both”. There are more of these, too; they tend to charge the same conduct as above, but the person whose identity is stolen in other counts is a teacher (different teachers).

And there are a number of counts like this one:
On or about April 17, 2008, in violation of Section 6201 of the Government Code (ALTER AND FALSIFY A PUBLIC RECORD), a FELONY, OMAR SHAHID KHAN did willfully and unlawfully alter and falsify the official permanent Topics in Calculus grade and transcript records of Omar Khan, filed and deposited in the Tesoro High School and Capistrano Unified School District, a public office located in Orange County California.
Felony Complaint - People of the State of California v. Khan and Singh, supra. I’m having a little trouble figuring out the sentence for this one, but I THINK it’s basically the same as the prior count, i.e., a fine and/or imprisonment for not more than a year.

I give you these highlights from what is a really long complaint (69 counts!) simply to illustrate that these guys are charged with some serious crimes. Looking at these charges and the possible sentences that can be imposed for each, I can certainly see why Mr. Khan is facing a possible sentence of 38 years, if he were to be convicted of all of them.

My first reaction on hearing about this was, why a criminal case? Why not handle this within the school system?

I can’t find much in the way of statements from the prosecutors who put the charges together, but I did see that Jim Amormino, of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (who presumably investigated all this), said criminal charges were justified because this isn’t a “victimless” crime. According to a KTLA report, Amormino said that if Khan had gotten away with changing his grades and succeeded in getting into the university he wanted, some other, truly-deserving student would have lost the place he or she deserved.

I wonder if this theory is the basis of the fraud allegations in the count I quoted above and others like it? I wondered what the “fraud” was. I’m not sure if it’s being cast as a fraud on (i) the universities Khan was applying to or (ii) on the students he would have been cheating out of a place in one of those universities or (iii) something else.

I can certainly see the school’s, and the community’s, being outraged. It’s a really shabby thing to do . . . and it threatens to undermine faith in the integrity of the whole educational process. I don’t know about high schools, but law schools in general tend to be fraught with rumors about cheating because most of the grades are based on a single final exam. I honestly don’t think there is much cheating in any law school, but the belief that it goes on is something law school administrators have to deal with; they have to take pains to ensure that students believe in the honesty and integrity of the exam processes. I suspect high schools have to do something similar . . . especially as high school students become more adept at using computers.

Even if I can buy the need for a criminal prosecution – the need to “make an example” of these guys in an attempt to discourage other, similarly-talented and similarly-situated students from following their example – I really don’t see the need for so many charges. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine this thing will go to trial. I have to assume there’ll be some kind of plea bargain (especially as the allegations in the complaint make it sound like the prosecution has its evidence down solid) . . . but I also suspect the prosecutor is going to want to see jail time. As one of the articles I read said, that’s pretty much going to kill any hope these two have of going to a good school (any school) and it’s probably not going to do much for their future job prospects, either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with Susan Brenner's analysis. There is a definite overreaction on the part of the school almost to a point that it seems like there is a personal vendatta involved against Mr. Khan. 69 counts of felony for hacking into a school system. This is espceically rediculous when the same school wished to expel two of their seniors Scott McKnight and Sam Smith for a murder threat to the teacher in writing (a graphical description of the the murder was found in the journals).

I think the case does not stand a chance in the court. The counts are duplicated by the DA. The district attorney may even face his own expulsion similar to the Duke university case.