In 1992, the sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling published The Hacker Crackdown, a riveting nonfiction book about a string of high-profile hacker busts on the early "electronic frontier" of the late '80s and early '90s. The first hacker crackdown shook the early internet to its core and helped mobilize political geeks. Today, we're in the midst of a new crackdown. And with the death this weekend of the legally and emotionally troubled 26-year-old computer genius Aaron Swartz, this one has a body count.
Before he hanged himself in his Brooklyn home on Friday, Swartz faced as many as 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for allegedly bypassing the network security of MIT and online academic journal archive JSTOR to illegally download millions of academic articles. Prosecutors alleged that Swartz, a long-time freedom of information advocate, had hoped to release the articles for free online.
Swartz's parents have publicly blamed the federal prosecutors pursuing his case for contributing to his death. "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," the family said in a statement. "The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims."
Though the JSTOR stunt has become his most known, Swartz was the brains behind too many projects to count: He helped develop RSS, was one of the original programmers behind Reddit, and founded DemandProgress—a non-profit that fought for internet freedom and helped defeat the terrible online piracy bill SOPA last year. But Swartz was an activist, not an entrepreneur. "Aaron had literally done nothing in his life 'to make money,'" wrote his friend Lawrence Lessig. Propelling most of his activism was the belief that knowledge is power, and that spreading knowledge as widely as possible could help bring about a more equal and just world.
In 2008 Swartz penned the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which called for activists to "liberate" information locked up by corporations or publishers. "It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral —it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy."
If, as prosecutors allege, Swartz hacked into MIT and JSTOR's network to "liberate" the journal articles, then he was one of a growing number of hacktivists—those who hack for a cause, not for money or mischief. The causes hacktivists fight for are often noble, even if their tactics are questionable. Freedom of information is a principle anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of the internet age should stand for, and Swartz's pure belief in the power of knowledge was why the entire internet seemed to mourn when news of his death broke. It's why academics have been uploading PDFs of their papers to Twitter in tribute to Swartz, why Anonymous hacked MIT's website and why a White House petition to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, head of the office that prosecuted Swartz, has already garnered more than 12,000 signatures.
But for all the public admiration, Swart's motivation didn't help him when it came to his hacking case. In fact, it probably put him more squarely in the prosecutorial crosshairs: People like Swartz are the key targets in the new Hacker Crackdown. Each arrest and conviction is not just a crime punished, but an example set. Each successful prosecution another volley by the U.S. government in the increasingly heated political battle between two ideas of the internet: The cybercop's ideal of an orderly world where corporations and their customers can safely conduct business, and the free-wheeling but risky information paradise of geek idealists like Swartz.
So it is that people like 22-year-old college student Mercedes Haefer has had her life turned upside down over her alleged role in a December, 2010 distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) on PayPal. Members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous, angry that Paypal shut off donations to Wikileaks, attempted to overload Paypal's servers with traffic and take its website down temporarily. This tactic causes no lasting damage and is the online equivalent of trespassing during a sit-in, but Haefer and thirteen other coconspirators face 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
"We want to send a message that chaos on the internet is unacceptable," the deputy head of the FBI's cyber division said last year after the PayPal hacktivists were arrested. "The Internet has become so important to so many people that we have to ensure that the World Wide Web does not become the Wild Wild West." So it is that iPad hacker Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer is headed to prison for harvesting customer data that AT&T accidentally made public themselves, then disclosing it to the press to prove a point about their lax security.
The zeal with which Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann of Massachusetts pursued the case against Swartz suggests he was keen on sending a message as well. Heymann refused any plea deal that did not include Swartz pleading guilty to all of the 13 counts against him and a prison term, according to the Wall Street Journal. This despite the fact that JSTOR, the only party which could have been substantially harmed by Swartz's stunt, declined to pursue charges after he returned the journal articles.
The vindictive nature of Swartz's persecution, more than the charges themselves, is what spurred such anger among former friends and colleagues. The U.S. Attorney's office wanted to drive home its intolerance of law-breaking dissent online by breaking Swartz. "It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power," wrote the internet sociologist danah boyd, a friend of Swartz's, in an angry blog post. She continued:
In recent years, hackers have challenged the status quo and called into question the legitimacy of countless political actions. Their means may have been questionable, but their intentions have been valiant. The whole point of a functioning democracy is to always question the uses and abuses of power in order to prevent tyranny from emerging. Over the last few years, we've seen hackers demonized as anti-democratic even though so many of them see themselves as contemporary freedom fighters. And those in power used Aaron, reframing his information liberation project as a story of vicious hackers whose terroristic acts are meant to destroy democracy.
The first crackdown described more than two decades ago by Sterling seems relatively quaint compared to what's going on today. Its focus was on a loosely connected group of underground hackers who infiltrated phone companies' networks and stole confidential documents about their systems, to publish in hacker journals Phrack, or simply keep on their hard drive like artifacts of illicit knowledge. These hackers were driven by curiosity, not politics.
But even this invoked a fearsomely paranoid response from the Secret Service at the time. In one particularly bizarre incident, overzealous agents raided the offices of a role-playing games publisher named Steve Jackson in pursuit of a hacker who had obtained a document about the 911 system. Jackson's company had recently published a hacking-themed game called Cyberpunk, and the Secret Service confiscated Jackson's computers for months, convinced the game's instruction booklet was a real-world "manual for computer crime." It wasn't the last embarrassment for law enforcement, who, as Sterling paints it, were at times comically out of their comfort zones as they chased their prey.
Hackers and law enforcement alike were burned by the first hacker crackdown, but something positive came of it nonetheless. The unjust raids, show trials, and public demonizing of hackers brought about the formation of a political vanguard for the internet age: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an indispensable civil liberties organization, sprung from the ashes of the first crackdown and today tirelessly advocates for the rights of internet users, even those who might have incurred the wrath of the Feds. And the cyber cops began to get better, learning more about how to investigate computer crimes without causing collateral damage.
In fact Sterling ends The Hacker Crackdown on a hopeful note, with a description of "Computers, Freedom and Privacy," a 1990 meeting of the burgeoning "cyber libertarian" community, where cybercops, activists, underground hackers and came together in a sort of unlikely truce. "It is a community," Sterling wrote. "Something like Lebanon perhaps, but a digital nation. People who had feuded all year in the national press, people who entertained the deepest suspicions of one another's motives and ethics, are now in each others' laps."
Aaron Swartz's death, and the countless lives upended in recent years by hacktivist-hunting authorities, show how fleeting that moment was. But there are new calls for civility on both sides of the fight. danah boyd writes that internet activists "need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn't result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power." Lawrence Lessig has a message for those who do the tormenting: "Somehow, we need to get beyond the 'I'm right so I'm right to nuke you' ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame."
The outpouring of grief and rage over Aaron Swartz can be boiled down to one tragic realization: That no matter how important the fight over the internet is, it's not worth even one brilliant young man's life.
Photo via AP.