Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Peter Ludlow: Hacktivists as Gadflies

Hacktivists as Gadflies
By Peter Ludlow

Around 400 B.C., Socrates was brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and “impiety.” Presumably, however, people believed then as we do now, that Socrates’ real crime was being too clever and, not insignificantly, a royal pain to those in power or, as Plato put it, a gadfly. Just as a gadfly is an insect that could sting a horse and prod it into action, so too could Socrates sting the state. He challenged the moral values of his contemporaries and refused to go along with unjust demands of tyrants, often obstructing their plans when he could. Socrates thought his service to Athens should have earned him free dinners for life. He was given a cup of hemlock instead.

We have had gadflies among us ever since, but one contemporary breed in particular has come in for a rough time of late: the “hacktivist.” While none have yet been forced to drink hemlock, the state has come down on them with remarkable force. This is in large measure evidence of how poignant, and troubling, their message has been.

Hacktivists, roughly speaking, are individuals who redeploy and repurpose technology for social causes. In this sense they are different from garden-variety hackers out to enrich only themselves. People like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates began their careers as hackers — they repurposed technology, but without any particular political agenda. In the case of Mr. Jobs and Mr. Wozniak, they built and sold “blue boxes,” devices that allowed users to defraud the phone company. Today, of course, these people are establishment heroes, and the contrast between their almost exalted state and the scorn being heaped upon hacktivists is instructive.

For some reason, it seems that the government considers hackers who are out to line their pockets less of a threat than those who are trying to make a political point. Consider the case of Andrew Auernheimer, better known as “Weev.” When Weev discovered in 2010 that AT&T had left private information about its customers vulnerable on the Internet, he and a colleague wrote a script to access it. Technically, he did not “hack” anything; he merely executed a simple version of what Google Web crawlers do every second of every day — sequentially walk through public URLs and extract the content. When he got the information (the e-mail addresses of 114,000 iPad users, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff), Weev did not try to profit from it; he notified the blog Gawker of the security hole.

For this service Weev might have asked for free dinners for life, but instead he was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of more than $73,000 in damages to AT&T to cover the cost of notifying its customers of its own security failure.

When the federal judge Susan Wigenton sentenced Weev on March 18, she described him with prose that could have been lifted from the prosecutor Meletus in Plato’s “Apology.” “You consider yourself a hero of sorts,” she said, and noted that Weev’s “special skills” in computer coding called for a more draconian sentence. I was reminded of a line from an essay written in 1986 by a hacker called the Mentor: “My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”

When offered the chance to speak, Weev, like Socrates, did not back down: “I don’t come here today to ask for forgiveness. I’m here to tell this court, if it has any foresight at all, that it should be thinking about what it can do to make amends to me for the harm and the violence that has been inflicted upon my life.”

He then went on to heap scorn upon the law being used to put him away — the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the same law that prosecutors used to go after the 26-year-old Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January.

The law, as interpreted by the prosecutors, makes it a felony to use a computer system for “unintended” applications, or even violate a terms-of-service agreement. That would theoretically make a felon out of anyone who lied about their age or weight on Match.com.

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