Felony Charges for Hacker Who Changed High Schoolers' Grades

A 29-year-old tutor faces felony charges after allegedly hacking into a California high school's network to change students' grades. The maximum sentence is 16 years in prison. 

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood teen movie: Students at a high-performing Southern California high school, probably feeling the pressure to measure up to the high-class local community's expectations, reach out to a local hacker to help them raise their grades. Usually these sorts of movies sport a happy ending at which time lessons are learned and the guy gets the girl. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the hacking scandal at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach seems to be lacking that quintessential Hollywood ending.

Instead, a 29-year-old tutor stands accused of hacking into the school's network to change students' grades. He faces felony charges and a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. Today Timothy Lance Lai pleaded not guilty to 20 felony counts of computer access and fraud plus one count of second-degree commercial burglary. 

The Times' Hannah Fry explains:

"Investigators believe that Lai broke into Corona del Mar High in 2013 to place a device on the back of a teacher's computer to record everything typed on it. With that information, Lai was able to access the school's network between April and June 2013 and change three students' grades, investigators have said.

Based on further investigation, authorities accused Lai of changing students' grades on 16 separate occasions between Jan. 28, 2013, and June 14, 2013."

Eventually the teacher discovered that grades had been altered, the police got involved, the device (a keystroke logger) was recovered, and interviews with students led administrators to Lai, who then apparently incriminated himself in a recorded phone call with one of the students. Eleven students were expelled, a move some deemed rash considering some of the expelled only had a cursory knowledge of the cheating. One administrator accused the Newport-Mesa Unified School District of tossing the kids to the lions in an unjust show of force.

So what's the takeaway here? First, that the tools of academic cheating have evolved right alongside technology. If Lai is indeed guilty as charged, it appears he may have been too conspicuous in his grade alternations. Who knows how many school networks are currently compromised, especially since the gadgets needed to pull off a stunt like this are readily available

The second takeaway is that, as cheating and hacking continue to merge, the response from schools and law enforcement will continue to grow more rigid. Although it's highly unlikely Lai would serve 16 years in prison for such a crime, even the thought of over a decade in the clink for something like this could serve as a deterrent to imitators.

What's your take on this case? What kind of punishment is fitting for someone who hacks a school network to change grades? How will cheating continue to evolve in the future? We're interested in hearing what you think.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

Photo credit: Terence / Shutterstock

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