Aaron's Swartz's suicide in January triggered waves of indignation, and rightly so. He faced multiple felony counts and years in prison for what were, at worst, trivial transgressions of law. But his prosecution revealed the excess of both anti-hacking criminal statutes, particularly the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and the fixation of federal prosecutors on severely punishing all forms of activism that challenge the power of the government and related entities to control the flow of information on the internet.
Part of what drove the intense reaction to Swartz's death was how sympathetic a figure he was, but as noted by Orin Kerr, a former federal prosecutor in the DOJ's computer crimes unit and now a law professor at GWU, what was done to Swartz is anything but unusual, and the reaction to his death will be meaningful only if channeled to protest other similar cases of prosecutorial abuse:
"I think it's important to realize that what happened in the Swartz case happens in lots and lots of federal criminal cases. . . . What's unusual about the Swartz case is that it involved a highly charismatic defendant with very powerful friends in a position to object to these common practices. That's not to excuse what happened, but rather to direct the energy that is angry about what happened. If you want to end these tactics, don't just complain about the Swartz case. Don't just complain when the defendant happens to be a brilliant guy who went to Stanford and hangs out with Larry Lessig. Instead, complain that this is business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country -- mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone else much caring."
Prosecutorial abuse is a drastically under-discussed problem in general, but it poses unique political dangers when used to punish and deter online activism. But it's becoming the pre-eminent weapon used by the US government to destroy such activism.
Just this week alone, a US federal judge sentenced hactivist Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer to 3-1/2 years in prison for exploiting a flaw in AT&T's security system that allowed him entrance without any hacking, an act about which Slate's Justin Peters wrote: "it's not clear that Auernheimer committed any actual crime," while Jeff Blagdon at the Verge added: "he cracked no codes, stole no passwords, or in any way 'broke into' AT&T's customer database -- something company representatives confirmed during testimony." But he had a long record of disruptive and sometimes even quite ugly (though legal) online antagonism, so he had to be severely punished with years in prison.
Also this week, the DOJ indicted the deputy social media editor at Reuters, Matthew Keys, on three felony counts which carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for allegedly providing some user names and passwords that allowed Anonymous unauthorized access into the computer system of the Los Angeles Times, where they altered a few stories and caused very minimal damage. As Peters wrote about that case, "the charges under the CFAA seem outrageously severe" and, about Keys' federal prosecutors, observed: "apparently, they didn't take away any lessons from the Aaron Swartz case."
But the pending federal prosecution of 31-year-old Barrett Brown poses all new troubling risks. That's because Brown - who has been imprisoned since September on a 17-count indictment that could result in many years in prison -- is a serious journalist who has spent the last several years doggedly investigating the shadowy and highly secretive underworld of private intelligence and defense contractors, who work hand-in-hand with the agencies of the Surveillance and National Security State in all sorts of ways that remain completely unknown to the public. It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.
A brief understanding of Brown's intrepid journalism is vital to understanding the travesty of his prosecution. I first heard of Brown when he wrote a great 2010 essay in Vanity Fair defending the journalist Michael Hastings from attacks from fellow journalists over Hastings' profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone, which ended the general's career. Brown argued that establishment journalists hate Hastings because he has spent years challenging, rather than serving, political and military officials and the false conventional wisdom they spout.
In an excellent profile of Brown in the Guardian on Wednesday, Ryan Gallagher describes that "before he crossed paths with the FBI, Brown was a prolific writer who had contributed to publications including Vanity Fair, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and satirical news site the Onion." He also "had a short stint in politics as the director of communications for an atheist group called Enlighten the Vote, and he co-authored a well-received book mocking creationism, Flock of Dodos."
But the work central to his prosecution began in 2009, when Brown created Project PM, "dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance." Brown was then moved by the 2010 disclosures by WikiLeaks and the oppressive treatment of Bradley Manning to devote himself to online activism and transparency projects, including working with the hacktivist collective Anonymous. He has no hacking skills, but used his media savvy to help promote and defend the group, and was often referred to (incorrectly, he insists) as the Anonymous spokesman. He was particularly interested in using what Anonymous leaked for his journalism. As Brown told me several days ago in a telephone interview from the Texan prison where he is being held pending trial, he devoted almost all of his waking hours over the last several years to using these documents to dig into the secret relationships and projects between these intelligence firms and federal agencies.
The real problems for Brown began in 2011. In February, Anonymous hacked into the computer system of the private security firm HB Gary Federal and then posted thousands of emails containing incriminating and nefarious acts. Among them was a joint proposal by that firm -- along with the very well-connected firms of Palantir and Berico -- to try to persuade Bank of America and its law firm, Hunton & Williams, to hire them to destroy the reputations and careers of WikiLeaks supporters and, separately, critics of the Chamber of Commerce (as this New York Times article on that episode details, I was named as one of the people whose career they would seek to destroy). HB Gary Federal's CEO Aaron Barr, who advocated the scheme, was fired as a result of the disclosures, but continues to this day to play a significant role in this public-private axis of computer security and intelligence.
Brown became obsessed with journalistically investigating every strand exposed by these HB Gary Federal emails and devoted himself to relentlessly exposing this world. He did the same with the 2012 leak of millions of emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor, obtained by Anonymous and published by WikiLeaks. As Gallagher describes about Brown's fixation on these documents:
"Hackers would sometimes obtain data and then pass it on to him. He would spend days and nights hunkered down in his small uptown Dallas apartment pouring through troves of hacked documents, writing blog posts about US government intelligence contractors and their 'misplaced power' while working to garner wider media coverage. ...
"Brown was frustrated that mainstream media outlets were not covering stories he felt deserved attention. He would complain that reporters would often approach him and ask about the personalities of some of the more prominent hackers ... but ignore the deeper issues about governments and private contractors contained in documents that had been hacked."
The issues Brown was investigating are complex and serious, and I won't detail all of that here. In addition to Gallagher's article, two superb and detailed accounts of Brown's journalism in these areas have been published by Christian Stork of WhoWhatWhy and Vice's Patrick McGuire; read those to see how threatening Brown's work had become to lots of well-connected people. Suffice to say, Brown, using the documents obtained by Anonymous, was digging around -- with increasing efficacy -- in places which National Security and Surveillance State agencies devote considerable energy to concealing.