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SOFTWARE-THEFT CHARGES AGAINST STUDENT RATTLES WORLD OF MIT COMPUTER HACKERS

David LaMacchia was 12 years old when he learned that his older brother, Brian, was bound for MIT. "I said to him, 'Don't do that!' " David LaMacchia says now, a slim smile creeping across his weary face. "I said, 'You'll turn into a nerd.' "

Today, David LaMacchia himself is an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a place where images of academic brilliance are overlaid by a long history of world-class pranksterism.

And last week it was LaMacchia who stood in Courtroom Three of U.S. District Court in Boston, charged with a crime that seemed to represent both of these attributes run amok.

With his parents and brother nervously hovering in the first row, the slightly built LaMacchia -- or DML, as the electrical engineering and computer science major is known on-line -- was indicted for setting up and operating a computer bulletin board system at MIT on which Internet users distributed and obtained more than $1 million in copyrighted software.

If convicted, the 20-year-old junior from Rockville, Md., a Washington suburb, faces up to $250,000 in fines, as well as a prison sentence.

As LaMacchia returned from court to his cluttered fifth-floor dorm room, his case continued to be debated in computer "flame wars" that raged across both the Internet and Athena, MIT's own computer network. The fierce haggling frames the landmark case as it will likely be argued in court: the protection of intellectual property rights in cyberspace vs. First Amendment considerations in that same galaxy. Meanwhile, LaMacchia himself has been all but forgotten in the firestorm of electro-babble, while much of the off-line public views him as a reclusive digital hermit with little other than a computer to occupy his time.

Even his co-counsel, Harvey Silverglate, points to LaMacchia as "the quintessential computer nerd."

But to try to understand what has happened to LaMacchia, it may be necessary to understand MIT, where tension is often released by adventurism.

"A lot of people don't understand MIT's culture," says older brother Brian, now an MIT graduate student. He is referring to the school's long and celebrated history of "hacking," a term coined before it became associated with nefarious computer activities.

"Hacks" at MIT are usually elaborate pranks. The classic is probably the weather balloon that rose from the field during the 1982 Harvard-Yale football game. Officials at MIT contend that hacking is a necessary escape valve for stress. The administration is clearly proud of the hacking tradition. Why else would the MIT Museum publish a 158-page book about the subject? Samuel Keyser, a linguistics professor who is associate provost for Institute life, likens hacking to wearing sunglasses while looking at the sun: "It makes the university manageable to students, makes it less larger than life."

Was David LaMacchia's alleged computer bulletin board something of a hack? Ryan Smith, a friend of LaMacchia, thinks it doesn't measure up to true hackdom in terms of harmlessness. "If you're in the MIT community, you know what's a hack and what's not," he says. "Something like this would not be a hack."

But Alex Chen, an MIT junior who also is a friend of LaMacchia, sees something of a relationship between hacking and the computer bulletin board crime his friend is accused of committing.

"I think they're vaguely connected in the sense that institutions turn a blind eye toward both of them," he says, referring to the fact that "underground" computer bulletin boards have been around for more than a decade, many of them offering copyrighted software, and that they have received little attention from authorities. "The laws against them aren't strictly enforced."

Robert and Sherry LaMacchia, David's parents, say they weren't eager for their younger son to attend MIT. They would have preferred Brown, where he was also accepted. "David was very well-rounded, and we wanted him to have a more well-rounded education," says his mother.

In high school, LaMacchia participated in an assortment of extracurricular activities, but there was little time for such luxuries at MIT. "There's a saying at MIT that there are three kinds of activities here -- social, outside work and school work -- and that you can choose two out of three," he says. "Initially, I was silly and tried to do all three. Now I just do school work and work" at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Clearly, MIT has become LaMacchia's home while the suburbs of Washington have been left behind. College summers have been spent working in the Artificial Intelligence Lab (where a David LaMacchia defense fund, which includes $600 in Coke machine receipts, originated). When Robert and Sherry LaMacchia reminisce about their younger son -- the honors he won as a flutist, the endless pizza he shared with friends down in the basement of the family's four-bedroom house -- they sound no different than other parents whose kids have gotten through life healthy and unscathed.

But eventually a gloominess sets in, just as it did on that early January day when they learned that their son, for whom they were paying in the neighborhood of $25,000 a year to attend one of America's most respected universities, was under investigation by the FBI. The laughter stops, voices are lowered, and the ends of sentences blow away like dust.

"I wouldn't know how to put our feelings into words," says Mrs. LaMacchia. "It's devastating. We're in bereavement. We just go through one day at a time. How do you prepare for something like this? The answer is, you don't."

"The last thing I ever expected to happen was to turn on the television and see myself and my two sons walking down the street and into a courthouse," added David's father.

"I wouldn't say I was a computer kid," David LaMacchia answers when asked about his early encounters with high technology. However, by age 10, LaMacchia had learned BASIC, an algebraic programming language. A year later he had mastered Pascal, a more advanced language.

LaMacchia played youth soccer and later took up the flute. He played in the high school band. He eagerly gobbled up science fiction and listened to Pink Floyd.

LaMacchia's friends were kids like himself, academic achievers with high SATs who were basically waiting to get on with lives that they knew would be successful.

If he was a "normal teen-ager," he also wasn't a normal teen-ager. By eighth grade he was on a countywide math team with high school kids. He participated in academic competitions such as That's Academic and the National Science Bowl. While still in high school, he took math and computer courses at a local community college. Through the Research Science Institute, he visited a number of scientific labs in France and Germany.

In short, he was -- like the kids he hung out with -- an unlikely future candidate for felonhood.

In January, the small group of high school classmates with whom LaMacchia still communicates via e-mail noticed that they weren't hearing from him nearly as often. They didn't know then what they know now: that their friend who had gone off to MIT was being investigated by the FBI, that he was deeply distressed, that a future that seemed limitless was suddenly very much in doubt.

"I can't concentrate. I haven't been able to sleep. I have no appetite," he laments.

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