Saturday, January 12, 2013

Witchcraft is not a crime

Aaron Swartz’s death was due to depression, but his legal troubles probably contributed to it. I hate to exploit the tragedy, but we really need to address those legal troubles.

The problem with computer geeks is that they are too smart. Boundaries obvious to the average person are invisible to geeks. They will run afoul of the law without being aware of it. From Aaron’s point of view, liberating the JSTOR documents was no different than writing the RSS spec or contributing to Reddit. There was a bug preventing JSTOR documents from being publicly accessible, so he simply fixed the bug. (Indeed, JSTOR itself later fixed the bug and liberated 4.5 million documents).

But, you might argue, this sounds similar to the justifications that criminals use. For example, when convicted of pushing someone off a cliff, a murderer might say “all I did was stretch out my hands, that’s not illegal, is it?”. A good point, but there’s a difference. Aaron didn’t intended to hurt JSTOR nor profit from his actions. The laws are there to stop the methods bad guys use to do bad things, not catch good guys in technicalities.

The idea of “intent” is at the center of the problem. As Arthur C. Clarke put it “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. What computer geeks do seems like magic to the average person, to the “jury of your peers”. What’s more, magic is essentially the same as witchcraft. Once you believe someone has magical powers, you start to fear them, and question their good intentions. Thus, no matter how good a geek’s intention, it’ll seem like evil black magic to prosecutors and juries. What saw this a couple months ago with “weev”, and it’s probably what would’ve happened to Aaron.

Aaron’s prosecutor is Carmen Ortiz, a political appointee who is a leading contender to become the next governor of Massachusetts. She had an opportunity to do the right thing and drop the case, but didn’t. We citizens should demand accountability from her, and demand why she instead chose to hound a talented geek to death.


Anonymous said...

I am sorry his depression lead to suicide but his excuse was the same as any one charged with online piracy...

"They werent hurting anyone."

The facts are he broke into a networking closet and hid a laptop to steal data that was only accessible on the MIT network.

maggini said...

@Anonymous: I know you may not have read this before commenting, but read it now:

CCD said...

I'll second maggini's comment. The article linked is excellent. Having been the lead engineer on an incident response and forensics team, I ran into a number of people just trying to get to information they felt should have been accessible. Poor policies, and bureaucratic processes exacerbated the issues. None of those cases warranted law enforcement involvement. If your tax dollars are going to pay for prosecutors and law enforcement looking to make examples out of issues like this one, you need to demand your money back. Computer crimes are being committed in Massachusetts that involve financial loss, trade secret loss, identity theft, terrorism, and more. The prosecutor should be focusing on them. The crime here that is worth 35 years is to put this much emphasis on a single person who walked onto an open campus, plugged into an open network jack in an unlocked closet to access information that was erroneously limited to that open network. Sensationalize and vilify for your own personal gain is the atrocity here. Because it was done with a computer, it must have been a magic witchcraft hack and therefore we'll burn the witch.

Anon2 said...

Boston US Attorney Carmen Ortiz is also the one behind the subpoenas of the Belfast Project oral history archives at Boston College.

The ACLU, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, ARTICLE 19 and others have filed amicus briefs supporting the protection of sources and confidentiality, in a case that is now pending at the Supreme Court.

The chilling effect of her support of a foreign government's spurious raid on confidential historical material for use in a non-existent prosecution is already palpable. Logic and reason have fallen on deaf ears.

The pressure of these cases, especially with JSTOR declining to press charges in Swartz's case and where the Justice Department continues a case shown to have been flawed from the start as in the Boston College case, is immense and emotionally devastating.

Tom Z said...

Witchcraft is not a crime.

But stealing stuff is.

If you steal something from me, I would want you prosecuted - reardless if you stole it yourself or conjured up a magical troll to steal it for you.

Witchcraft is not an excuse for something that is already a crime.

Centrum Projekt�w said...

Bardzo dobry wpis. Dzięki.