Stephen Tyler

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.

Hackers Must Be Punished

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There have been a couple of recent cases involving “unauthorised” use of computers, and the tendency of those in authority to over-react and punish the messenger, instead of paying attention to the underlying problem.  Much of the mainstream media has been incredibly ignorant in appealing for swift and strong justice, in order to send a strong “message” to others who might be thinking along similar lines, while ignoring the facts and motivations of the people involved.

Case 1 involves the suicide of Aaron Swartz, who was facing charges carrying up to 50 years in prison.  He accessed (large amounts of) public research from a University with an open network with free access to a database of research papers.  The owner of the database, JSTOR, initially contacted authorities about the problem, but did not want to press charges when the perpetrator was uncovered.

Case 2 involves a student, Ahmed Al-Kahabaz, who was expelled from his school for discovering that the school was exposing private information of other students, and telling the school about the flaw so that it could be fixed.  The provider of the software involved has since offered to hire the young ex-student.

Techdirt has an interesting analysis of the spin that the media have made of these cases, and how their reasoning is very flawed.

It touches on some key areas of the interaction between emerging technology and the law.

  • What constitutes stealing?  Can something be stolen if the original owner still has it in their possession?  Is it still stealing if the item in question is free or not even owned by the original party?
  • Is the breach of a one-sided, unilateral and perhaps unseen “user agreement” on a web site worthy of criminal proceeding involving lengthy jail time?
  • Should rules be ruthlessly enforced, because “Rule are Rules”?  Or are some rules just plain stupid?  is there any room for common sense?
  • Should trying to help be punished?  Severely and without mercy?
  • Does it matter if there are no victims, and everybody is better off?  Should the punishment still be the maximum permitted by law?
  • Hacking is the enhancement of some piece of technology to do something that the original creator did not intend.  Should all forms of hacking be outlawed and punished?  Is it wrong to do something beyond what the creator intended?
  • Can doing something as simple as changing a number in a URL in a browser be considered criminal hacking?  Is it a crime to possess the slightest bit of imagination and curiosity about the technology that we are forced to use?

Sadly we are seeing more cases where an over-zealous prosecutor is seeking to make an example of some hapless person, merely because that person’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge has caused embarrassment to some institution by exposing their weaknesses.

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