You cannot promote the (true) idea that security research benefits humanity while defending research that endangered hundreds of innocents
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) May 16, 2015
As reported by Kim Zetter at Wired, though, Roberts denies the FBI's allegations. He claims his comments were taken out of context, and that on the subject of taking control a plane, it was in fact a simulator not a real airplane.
I don't know which side is telling the truth, of course. I'm not going to defend Chris Roberts in the face of strong evidence of his guilt. But at the same time, I demand real evidence of his guilt before I condemn him. I'm not going to take the FBI's word for it.
We know how things get distorted. Security researchers are notoriously misunderstood. To the average person, what we say is all magic technobabble anyway. They find this witchcraft threatening, so when we say we "could" do something, it's interpreted as a threat that we "would" do something, or even that we "have" done something. Important exculpatory details, like "I hacked a simulation", get lost in all the technobabble.
Likewise, the FBI is notoriously dishonest. Until last year, they forbad audio/visual recording of interviews, preferring instead to take notes. This inshrines any misunderstandings into official record. The FBI has long abused this, such as for threatening people to inform on friends. It is unlikely the FBI had the technical understanding to understand what Chris Roberts said. It's likely they willfully misunderstood him in order to justify a search warrant.
There is a war on researchers. What we do embarrasses the powerful. They will use any means possible to stop us, such as using the DMCA to suppress publication of research, or using the CFAA to imprison researchers. Criminal prosecution is so one sided that it rarely gets that far. Instead, merely the threat of prosecution ruins lives, getting people fired or bankrupted.
When they come for us, the narrative will never be on our side. They will have constructed a story that makes us look very bad indeed. It's scary how easily the FBI convict people in the press. They have great leeway to concoct any story they want. Journalists then report the FBI's allegations as fact. The targets, who need to remain silent lest their words are used against them, can do little to defend themselves. It's like how in the Matt Dehart case, the FBI alleges child pornography. But when you look into the details, it's nothing of the sort. The mere taint of this makes people run from supporting Dehart. Similarly with Chris Roberts, the FBI wove a tale of endangering an airplane, based on no evidence, and everyone ran from him.
We need to stand together on or fall alone. No, this doesn't mean ignoring malfeasance on our side. But it does mean that, absent clear evidence of guilt, that we stand with our fellow researchers. We shouldn't go all Lord of the Flies on the accused, eagerly devouring Piggy because we are so relieved it wasn't us.
P.S. Alex Stamos is awesome, don't let my bitch slapping of him make you believe otherwise.