New Orleans There was a fascinating and disturbing opinion piece in the New York Times by Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor philosophy that burned some of the fog from my eyes about the disparate treatment between computer hacktivists (hacking activists) and hack-preneurs or hacker entrepreneurs. It was not just the fact that Ludlow recited the old story about the now fabled Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer founders, who started out their seminal partnership by making and selling boxes that allowed users to beat the phone company on long distance charges, but the excessive legal penalties being assessed to hackers or other internet activists who are sharing information about security or telling us about domestic spying involving our own government.
He cites the case of Andrew Aurenheimer who stumbled on the fact that AT&T had exposed private information on some of its customers out there on the web, basically for all who knew how, to be able to see it; he and a buddy wrote some simple code to collect it. Unlike Jobs and Wozniak, he didn’t try to score money on this deal, but instead exposed the security breach to the Gawker blog website. For his trouble he was sentenced to almost 4-years in prison and fined $70000.
In another example Ludlow offered, he put forward the case of Barrett Brown, a journalist who became obsessed with documents indicating that two private security companies, HB Gary Federal and Stratfor, were hired by the U.S. Government to come up with various schemes to undermine protestors and journalists. Brown is now held in a federal pokey in Texas. His alleged crime? He reposted a web address that was publically available on the internet so he could get help “crowdsourcing” the reading of all the documents. He did no hacking, just reposted what was put out by these two companies, but because some of what was available in the documents included credit card info, he was charged with 11 counts of credit card fraud. Glenn Greenwald, who writes for Salon and was one of the journalists the companies were trying to bring down, was quoted saying that it was “virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism or his related activism.” Amen!
Ludlow, the philosopher, makes the point better than I could hope to do, writing,
In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.
It’s stories like these that make you ask yourself, what country am I living in? South Africa, Russia, somewhere in Eastern Europe? It is painful to grasp that this is an American story, and it doesn’t take a philosopher to understand the troubling moral issues involved in all of this.