October 08, 2008, 9:25 PM — The college student charged with illegally accessing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's e-mail has been accused of computer intrusion before, although last time he faced only an afternoon detention.
David Kernell allegedly broke into a school server about eight years ago while studying at Eastern Hills Middle School in Harker Heights, Texas, one of his former teachers said Wednesday.
Kernell, 20, was charged Wednesday with one felony count of accessing a protected computer for allegedly breaking into the private Yahoo e-mail account of Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Some of Palin's private e-mail was eventually published on the Wikileaks Web site last month.
In a description of the attack, an anonymous hacker named "rubico," suspected to be Kernell, said he got into the account by guessing the high school where Palin met her husband and tricking Yahoo's password reset system into letting him into the account.
According to Kernell's former history teacher, Tracey McDaniels, this isn't the first time the student has been accused of using clever guesswork to get into a computer.
The other incident allegedly occurred around 2000, when Kernell was in the seventh grade. Kernell and an accomplice guessed the password to a server used to store teaching materials at the school and were able to log on to the system, McDaniels said.
The two junior hackers "fessed up pretty quickly" after McDaniels found a classroom computer connected to the server and then simply asked the class who had done it, he said.
It was hardly a major infraction. Kernell and his accomplice didn't get access to anything important on the network.
"They were given after-school detention," McDaniels said. "We didnâ€™t think it was anything major at the time. It was just a low-level server. It didn't have any important stuff on it."
"That ended the problem," he added, saying he didn't have other run-ins with Kernell in class.
McDaniels remembers Kernell as a bright student who was "a little stand-offish with friends."
Even as a seventh-grader, Kernell, the son of a Democratic state legislator in Tennessee, was politically astute, McDaniels said. "He could carry on a conversation about politics with me, and he was 12 years old," he said. "He could talk Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations and Machiavelli."
Being smart didn't necessarily help him make any friends, though. "The other seventh-graders kind of saw him as an anomaly and didn't want to hang out with him," he said.
McDaniels said he isn't sure exactly why Kernell accessed the school server. He wouldn't have been able to change his grades on the system, or indeed do much more than browse through worksheets and lesson plans. "He was a techno-geek," he said. " I think he did it just because he could. Just as a challenge maybe."