"The Best Fucking Thing That Could Possibly Happen": Hacker Convict Weev Bids Farewell to FreedomS

"America is in a cultural decline," the internet troll and 27-year-old hacker Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer said into a microphone on Monday morning outside Newark's Martin Luther King Courthouse. Bearded, in a black hoodie with pockets that bulged with his omnipresent 3G-enabled tablet computer and a neckerchief, the stocky Auernheimer was dressed for hurling chunks of sidewalk through storefronts in a European street protest. He was speaking to a pack of cameras in the shadow of the enormous High Modernist bust of Lady Justice that dominates the plaza. "In my country there's a problem and that problem is the Feds. They take everybody's freedom and they never give it back."

Auernheimer's freedom was scheduled to be taken away in about an hour, at the sentencing hearing following his conviction for computer fraud and hacking. In November he was convicted for his role in a 2010 hack of the AT&T website for iPad subscribers, when he and a codefendant exploited a security flaw to harvest more than 110,000 of the subscribers' account information. To embarrass AT&T for its lax security, the hackers shared the information with Gawker, which published an account of how the breach worked.

Many tech bloggers will tell you that the charges are stupidly overblown and actually make the internet less safe. Auernheimer is basically going to prison for being an unrepentant asshole.

So he has become a cause celebre within a nebulous culture at the intersection of technology, social activism, and libertarianism—hackers, Occupy Wall Streeters, artists, tech bloggers, and even venture capitalists who are connected by a shared sense of being in a precarious position on the furthest edges of information technology. Auernheimer is to them a fellow pioneer who is now being punished for his ingenuity by a government that wants to control the world's flow of information.

His case has become all the more resonant with them since information activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide while being prosecuted under the same overly-expansive computer crime law as Auernheimer, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. (Columbia law professor Tim Wu calls it calls "the worst law in technology.") Plus, they like the guy. Weev is a terrible person on the internet, a self-styled pioneer of internet trolling, i.e. harassing and offending people for laughs. (You can read about his exploits in my November profile.) But he is endlessly charming once you get to know him personally. And his case drives home the vital point that an unjust law is unjust whether it targets a saint or an asshole.

About two dozen of his most ardent supporters had turned up, huddling in the cold, as Auernheimer—who has an almost chlorophyllic relationship to camera lights—delivered yet another rambling statement about how his case represents the downfall of Western Civilization. They stood bleary-eyed, some reeking of booze and cigarettes in yesterday's clothes. The hearing was at the start of a government work week, but in Weev's world, it was the tail end of an all-night party celebrating his last stretch of freedom. His backers were powering straight through.

***

There would be "pretty much no media," Auernheimer had told me on Saturday afternoon, when I tried without success to get him to share the details of the party. That was obvious bullshit. There would sooner be no party than no media. Luckily, finding the directions to Weev's party turned out to be even easier than harvesting tens of thousands of iPad owner account details: A rival internet troll posted the address to Twitter.

It was in Newark, hosted by the prankster-artist Clark Stoeckly, whose best-known project is driving around New York in a truck painted to look like a "Wikileaks Mobile Collection Unit." Stoeckley had attended Weev's November trial, been impressed by his hilarious bombast in court, and offered to host his going-to-jail party at the immense, colorful loft he shares with a bunch of other artists.

I got there around 10:30. A sign outside said "Weev's Party, 4th floor," and the door was open, so I went upstairs. There were about 30 people there, and the crowd would grow to around 40, including an Esquire reporter and his photographer, a documentary crew from Los Angeles, a reporter from Russia Today, and the livestreamer Tim Pool, who made his name documenting the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. Pretty much no media.

Auernheimer spotted me, smiled, and slapped me on the shoulder. He told me I could stay as long as I promised not to mention the presence of two friends he hoped would attend—their own legal troubles could be complicated if the authorities knew they were associating with him. Neither showed up.

Various digital misfits and cyberpunks drank booze from plastic cups, played pool and ping pong on tables next to an indoor garden fashioned from a bathtub, and sang along to Queen. Someone had a theremin.

In the crowd was Bobcat, a bearded veteran of the New York City hacker scene, his aging-hippie aesthetic betrayed by a leather jacket sporting the logo of the legendary hacker conference DEFCON. Bobcat was demonstrating a minor bug he'd just discovered in the URL shortening system used by the U.S. government. On a small tablet computer, he explained that he had added a plus sign to a .gov URL, which redirected it to a photo he'd uploaded of Barack Obama staring wistfully into the gaping maw of Goatse. Bobcat pointed out that what he had done was not all that different than Weev's trick.

"Weev did what I do every day!" Bobcat said. The problem was, he said, that there was no safe place enlightened geeks could report to if they spotted something amiss, without fearing the wrath of the Feds. "There should be like a council of elders who you go to when you find a problem like this," he said

By a table littered with bags of chips and Chinese takeout stood the internet troll Jaime Cochran, aka "AsshurtMacFags." Cochran is a 20-something transgender woman who had taken the train from her home in the Chicago suburbs to be at the hearing. Until recently she was a member of the Rustle League, an upstart trolling group which aspires to be the "Andy Kaufman of trolling." I was vaguely familiar with Cochran and the Rustle League because I had received an anguished email late last year from one of its victims, complaining of death threats, defamatory tweets, and "a horrendous hate-filled anti-Semitic Twitter account using my name and pics." Cochran has appeared on Australian television, explaining to a puzzled host why she spends her free time harassing users of jam band music boards.

Naturally Cochran is a big fan of Auernheimer's. With the AT&T hack, he took trolling out of the internet backwater and threw it onto the national stage. Most trolls are "still focused on trolling bloggers, " she said. "But I think trolling should have higher aspirations. That's what Weev did." He trolled one of the biggest technology companies on the planet.

The atmosphere was one of happy and increasingly inebriated defiance. Clark Stoekley relished his role as host in a purple smoking jacket and top hat, smoking cigarettes from a holder he had orginally bought for a Hunter S. Thompson Halloween costume.

To a circle of rapt supporters, Weev explained how his imprisonment was a blessing in disguise.

"This is the best fucking thing that could possibly happen to me," he said. "My trolls are ideological, but they also impact markets. I have eyes on me that are worth billions of dollars. I've already got offers that are like, Hey, I'll give you $5 million when you get out."

Jeffrey Paul, the German-based American hacker who put up Auernheimer's $50,000 bail, sported an absurd futuristic visor in a winking nod to hacker stereotypes. "The real story here is that Andrew is such an asshole but he has this popular support," he said.

As morning drew near, the party moved to an apartment in the back of the loft. It was so spacious and beautiful that posting a photo of it to Twitter would prompt most of New York City to ford the Hudson River to start a new life in Newark. A swing hung from the rafter, and many people narrowly missed having their teeth knocked out by hackers hurtling through the smoky air. Weev took a turn: "Freedom!" he shouted, soaring above his supporters.

One of my last clear memories is of Weev and Bobcat filming video of the party on Bobcat's tablet computer, gazing down into the screen where they saw themselves saying: "Weev did what I do every day!" "You're all committing three felonies a day!" "I will see you all in my cell block!"

***

The trip through security into the courthouse was uneasy. Weev's supporters were bristling with electronics and piercings, their necks swaddled in black bandanas emblazoned with tactical tips for protesters ("DO NOT RESIST ARREST. DO NOT CONSENT TO SEARCH"). And they were naturally disinclined to do anything that someone with a badge might ask them to do. One supporter wore a Guy Fawkes mask sitting on top of his head, and a guard told him to remove it. Mocking murmurs went through the crowd.

"It's for national security," said Jamie Cochran, lowering her voice into a mock-official baritone. "National security."

The Auernheimer enthusiasts crammed into the courtroom, filling both sides of the aisle. As the proceeding unfolded, they heckled and whispered, like the audience at a punk show confronted with an excruciatingly uncool opening act. Snorts of indignation and derisive laughs erupted when the prosecutor referred to the computer security organization Auernheimer started, Goatse Security, as a "security organization, so-called."

Phone use was forbidden in the courtroom, and various Free Weevers kept getting kicked out for attempting to tweet. This included Cochran, who subsequently stood outside by the door and loudly fought, or maybe pretended to fight, with a security guard. Her protestations wafted in, comically disjointed, every time the door opened:

"Ow, you monster."

"Ow. Ow. Ow."

"You people are great Americans."

But two of Auernheimer's supporters sat quietly throughout the hearing. Andrew's mother Alyse Auernheimer and her husband, Mark, had flown from Richmond, Virginia for the hearing. Alyse made eye contact with Andrew and blew him a kiss, but he made no acknowledgement of her presence. It was the first time she had seen her son in over six years.

After some procedural stuff, Auernheimer gave a statement, repeating much of what he'd said outside. "I don't come here to ask forgiveness," he said. "This court's decision is wrong and if you people understood what you were doing to the rule of law and the Constitution, you would feel shame!"

A phalanx of enormous U.S. Marshals sat in the jury box, unimpressed by the measly physical threat presented by Auernheimer and his supporters. One of them could have subdued the entire audience. But during the prosecutor's closing statements, Auernheimer surreptitiously reached for his tablet, and the whole squad bore down at once: They pried the tablet out of his hands before he could do whatever he was trying to do—tweet, presumably—pressed his body into the table, then cuffed him and hustled him out of the courtroom.

The spectators erupted in cries and gasps. A woman began weeping loudly. "Sickos!" yelled an Anonymous supporter who goes by the name Subverzo, "This government is in contempt!"

"This is why Aaron killed himself!" said another guy.

Five minutes later Auernheimer was back, in shackles. He mouthed "don't cry" to the crying woman, a few members of the crowd flashed him thumbs up, and the hearing began again. Now the supporters were subdued.

The prosecutor's closing statement suggested a tip for those about to be sentenced for a crime: Do not, mere hours before your hearing, give an interview on the internet claiming you'd commit the crime again. Auernheimer had kicked off his going-to-jail party by taking part in a livestreamed "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit. Did he have any regrets about the iPad hack, one user asked.

"My regret is being nice enough to give AT&T a chance to patch before dropping the dataset to Gawker," he replled. "I won't nearly be as nice next time."

(Later, Auernheimer's lawyer, Tor Ekelund, said he had told him not to do the interview. "He will write what he wants," Ekelund said.)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Zach Intrater cited this response in his argument for a harsher term, as it showed Auernheimer was at an "atypical" risk for recidivism. "Less than 24 hours before sentencing, he said he was going to reoffend," Intrater said. "The threat is clear."

Intrater continued, in a tone that said he did not relish in what he was about to say but was compelled by its profound truth to say it. "This was not a one-off," Intrater said. "His entire history puts his own advancement—financial, social, reputational—above the interests of others."

Intrater quoted an email exchange between Auernheimer and one of the victims of his trolling, pausing between each exchange for great effect. The guy, whom Intrater called "M.G.," had emailed Auernheimer begging him to remove a post about him on the troll knowledgebase Encyclopedia Dramatica, where Auernheimer was once an administrator. The post had slanderous material and nude photos and, M.G. claimed, had already caused him to lose his job.

Auernheimer had responded simply: "$500."

"Are you saying it would cost $500 to take the page down? Do you know me? Do you know anything about me," pleaded M.G.

"I know many people who came here today think the defendant is very funny," Intrater said, sparking giggles in the crowd. "But M.G. didn't."

Auernheimer was sentenced to a 41-month term, near the maximum of the sentencing guidelines, plus a $73,000 fine. As Judge Susan D. Wigenton explained how she was disappointed that Auernheimer had not used his skills and charisma toward better ends, his mother watched without emotion. Her husband tapped her softly on the knee each time the judge stressed a point.

"Hail Eris!" were Auernheimer's last words, a shout-out to the Greek goddess of chaos before he disappeared into the Essex County Jail.

***

Outside the courtroom, Weev's supporters consoled each other, cried, and fumed.

"I'm disgusted, this is in contempt," said Subverzo. "This is the sort of animalistic behavior we'd expect from the government."

Auernheimer's lawyers plan to appeal. Now that he has become a symbol for the unfairness of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a group of heavy hitters has come on board to help, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the cyberlaw expert Orin Kerr. The case may go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Alyse Auernheimer and her husband left without speaking to any of her son's friends and supporters. When I called her later she told me that she was also disgusted by the proceedings, but mainly by the displays of the supporters.

"I thought the circus atmosphere was disrespectful to the court, to the law," she said. "It was disrespectful to Andrew because he was a part of it. I just hate that sort of mad, mad world scenario."

She said she understood that Auernheimer's punishment was too harsh and that AT&T should share part of the blame for its lax security. But, she said, the supporters represented part of Andrew's problem, not its solution. "A group of people surrounding him, encouraging his bad behavior—that's not love for Andrew," she said. "When all those people fall away we'll still be there. That's part of being a family. And tough love is part of being a family."

"We love our son and while obviously we completely didn't approve of anything that transpired, we still want to be there to support him," she said. "I hope someday that he'll say that maybe this is a chance for him to do something different."