“The battlefield is the Internet. Whoever wins the Internet wins the war.”

This intimate SXSW panel (about 20 attendees) was focused on the situation faced by an increasing number of Hackers being pursued by the government for a range of minor indiscretions. On the panel were two of the US’s most famous hacker defence lawyers, Jay Leiderman and Tor Ekeland, both of whom have a number of high profile cases currently going through the courts. Also on stage was Joe Fionda, a journalist working with Barrett Brown, who is facing 105 years in prison for retweeting a link to leaked credit cards.

The panel was introduced by Vivien Weisman, a writer and filmmaker in the final stages of production of a documentary called The War on Hackers (see the trailer here). Her contention is one that appeared in many other panels during this year’s SXSW: governments are desperate to control the public narrative, and anyone that finds or exposes information that contradicts their narrative, will face the wrath of the Department of Justice prosecutors.

One of the key issues facing hackers in the legal system, and those looking to help them, is that the current laws concerning “unauthorised computer access” were authored during the paranoid, early 80s Reagan era politics. In fact, Leiderman quipped that it was only after Reagan watched the 1983 movie, WarGames, that the government became interested in computer crime. There’s an urban myth that the president may have thought the movie was a documentary, but even if that’s not true, reading the legislation you’ll see that the movie is mentioned numerous times. The other thing of note about the age of these laws is that this was a computing era that pre-dates hypertext and the HTTP protocol. The definition of unauthorised access was a little clearer when someone had to dial-in, break in or phone phreak to infiltrate a remote computer. These days, hackers are being indicted under the same laws for linking to things, having associations with individuals or publishing information. This ambiguity, is allowing the US government a lot of discretion in the selecting who it goes after.

Another interesting discussion concerned one of the most famous of recent hacks, by Jeremy Hammond, into a company called Stratfor. This hack revealed, according to the panel, 92Gb of emails containing evidence of much dubious corporate behaviour. Stratfor is one of the many companies benefitting from the government’s gradual privatisation of intelligence activities and contracts over the last 20 years. Part of what surfaced in the leak concerned another arm of Stratfor, Stratcap, which is an event arbitrage and global macro fund that would trade on the basis of Stratfor’s geopolitical and strategic intelligence. So Stratfor finds out what’s going to happen – and Stratcap bets that it’s going to happen. Conflict much?

Interestingly the Stratfor information was sent to The Atlantic and the NYT who both responded in a day saying there was nothing of interest in the material (you would need a lot of resources to analyse 92Gb of emails in a day!). This annecdote appears to support Weisman’s opinion that journalists are not doing their job with relation to leaks of sensitive info. His reasoning was that journalists need access to people of importance and breaking news to do their job. The government has a long history of rescinding that access where it feels that the wrong perspective is being put forward into the press.

To close off the discussion, Leiderman said he had begun to refer to the broader situation concerning surveillance, corruption of intelligence info, spying and prosecution of hackers, as “tin foil reality”. You know those odd, paranoid guys that used to run around saying the government’s listening to everything we say and is out to get us? They might have been onto something.


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