Society Magazine

Computer Hackers Hounded by Outdated Law

Posted on the 03 March 2013 by Azharnadeem

AaronSwartzEven though technology continues to rapidly advance, our nation’s legislation remains firmly rooted in a three decade old mindset. This dichotomy has already had disastrous results for the nation’s IT security infrastructure. Over the past few years, federal prosecutors have used these antiquated laws to pursue hackers. Most recently, Aaron Swartz, a co-founder of the popular site Reddit, committed suicide after being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.

Swartz’s Crime

What is known about the case is that Aaron Swartz did break the law. He stole 4.8 million documents from the academic library JSTOR by illegally hacking into the service. After his subsequent arrest, Swartz gave prosecutors the hard drives upon which the academic documents were stored, and JSTOR dropped the charges against Swartz.

JSTOR’s decision to let Swartz off the hook should have been the end of this story, but it wasn’t. Carmen Ortiz of the Justice Department decided to proceed with federal charges against Swartz anyway, who suddenly faced multiple charges of fraud and hacking. If convicted of all charges, Swartz would have faced more than an impossibly large $1 million fine. He would also spend the next 35 years of his life in prison.

A Fundamental Disconnect

With dwindling hope, Swartz decided to take his own life rather than spend most of it behind bars. There was an immediate public outcry fueled by media reports and a grassroots movement. Although nothing will bring Aaron Swartz back to life, his death may finally ignite the public discourse necessary to change these ancient laws.

Keep in mind that Swartz never once thought of selling the information for personal gain. He thought only of making knowledge public so that all might benefit from it. Consider also that many of the academic articles found in JSTOR are paid for with tax dollars, but JSTOR requires a paid subscription to access those articles.

In a legal sense, Swartz was clearly in the wrong. He violated the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was written before the Internet became widely available. However, it was just bad luck that he also had to contend with an overzealous U.S. attorney.

Changing Minds

There are already some hopeful signs that Swartz’s death may spur national change. Darrell Issa, a popular and respected Republican from California, stated, “The crime and the punishment did not fit.” Democrat Alan Grayson of Florida argued that “prosecution should not be persecution.”

Even had Swartz been acquitted of all charges, his good reputation would have been soiled by the allegations. Many would find his actions selfless because he attempted to spread information to the masses, but others could never look beyond his label of thief.

To combat the worst of the allegations, Swartz would have had to hire the services of an Internet defamation lawyer, who specializes in tracking down and stamping out slanderous allegations. Unfortunately, he would never be completely free from Ortiz’s charges. As many other celebrities have learned to their dismay, nothing can ever truly be erased from the Internet.

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