We have had gadflies among us ever since [Socrates], but one contemporary breed in particular has come in for a rough time of late: the “hacktivist.” While none have yet been forced to drink hemlock, the state has come down on them with remarkable force. This is in large measure evidence of how poignant, and troubling, their message has been.
Hacktivists, roughly speaking, are individuals who redeploy and repurpose technology for social causes. In this sense they are different from garden-variety hackers out to enrich only themselves. People like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates began their careers as hackers — they repurposed technology, but without any particular political agenda. In the case of Mr. Jobs and Mr. Wozniak, they built and sold “blue boxes,” devices that allowed users to defraud the phone company. Today, of course, these people are establishment heroes, and the contrast between their almost exalted state and the scorn being heaped upon hacktivists is instructive.
Peter Ludlow, New York Times Opinionator Blog. Hacktivists as Gadflies.
FJP: Ludlow argues that while American society celebrates its hackers, the ones they do are those that are “non-political”, and hack to start companies. See: Jobs, Wozniak, Gates and Zuckerberg.
For those with a political agenda — perceived or otherwise — the law comes down hard. See: Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer (writing a script to collect personal information exposed by AT&T and handing the results of his investigation into the security hole over to Gawker) and sentenced to 41 months in prison; Barrett Brown (linking to a publicly available Web page containing the results of a credit card hack committed by others) and now facing charges of up to 100 years on 12 counts of credit card fraud; and Aaron Swartz (writing a script to download academic articles but not distributing them) who killed himself before before going to trial in a case that could have meant 35 years in prison, among others.
As we’ve pointed out before, US laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act are so broad — and so out of date in our current networked environments — that almost all of us, technically, do things that put us on the wrong side of the law.
When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.
Related: Boing Boing, CISPA: Congress wants to create unlimited Internet spying powers.