Aaron Swartz, Jake Appelbaum, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, Jeremy Hammond . . . wanted not only to "liberate information," but to inform the public. Aaron Swartz's suicide has brought these lofty and life-threatening goals into stark relief. These men, some of whom I represent or have worked on their cases, are all the targets of vicious and vindictive federal criminal investigations and prosecutions. They all find themselves in extremis by the crushing weight of the entire Executive Branch. Information is the currency of power, and they've dared to make it available to you, the public, and that makes them not only extremely dangerous, but criminals.
They have paid with the careers, their freedom, their lives.
When I recently attended a renowned hacker convention in Germany--the 29th Chaos Communication Congress (29C3)--I gained an even greater understanding of how hacktivists and whistleblowers share many of the same goals: to free up information, or reveal secret information evidencing illegality, with noble motive and the public interest in mind.
The most sympathetic case is that of NSA whistleblower Tom Drake, against whom the government brought a draconian espionage prosecution that collapsed with all 10 felony counts being dismissed. In Drake's own words:
After 9/11, the government went to the digital dark side. The American people should know that they are the target of a multi-billion-dollar domestic surveillance program that invades people's privacy when there was a cheaper, effective, non-intrusive, and constitutional alternative available. There needs to be a conversation about this.
The most controversial example of the hacker/whistleblower interesection is Bradley Manning, but his words are strikingly similar to Drake's:
If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?--Quotes from an online chat attributed to Bradley Manning
God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms . . . I want people to see the truth . . . because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.
Jake Applebaum, one of the creators of Tor, is also being investigated and surveilled by the federal government. His words echo Drake's and Manning's:
So when you're talking about how some information might be worth hiding, and maybe there's some times that some secrets should be kept, remember what you're saying is that someone else is more qualified to make a decision than you are. This is an extremely anti-democratic thought process, and you should reject it.Finally, we have the tragic lesson of Aaron Swartz, hacktivist, computer prodigy, writer, and visionary--the one who developed the ubiquitous RSS web protocol at age 14, co-founded social news site Reddit at 19, founded Demand Progress, which was instrumental in keeping the internet open and free, and killed himself at 26--according to his family and friends, in part due to the devastating ruin of criminal prosecution in which he faced 50 years in jail and $4 million in fines . . . for downloading too many free scholarly articles from JSTOR, an online database of academic works.
As Swartz said:
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.Drake, Manning, Appelbaum, Swartz, and about a hundred others are a huge threat to the government. We need to ask why. While torturers and banksters walk free, the government knows that information is the currency of power. When people try to expose information in the public interest--and especially if they expose information revealing the government's fraud, waste, abuse and illegality--the government will make an example of them, something that has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with chilling a free and open democratic society.