Black Shards Press – Electronic Gumbo is Our Specialty

More on Aaron Swartz

14.01.2013 (11:22 am) – Filed under: Law,Technology ::

New information about Aaron Swartz’s hacking activities at MIT tell quite a different story than the one that was initially revealed by Swartz’s former attorney and expert witness over the weekend. Different enough, in fact, that I would have to say that Alex Stamos lied in Saturday’s post in which he claimed Aaron’s actions were “inconsiderate”, not “wrong”.

The Washington Post reported that Swartz invaded a MIT server closet and installed a laptop computer on the college’s network from which he downloaded the research materials in question and the Daily Mail ran pictures of Swartz as he was later caught in the act of trying to remove the computer.

Contrary to the picture painted by Stamos and others, the photos reveal that Aaron Swartz was plainly engaged in an “extra-legal” activities at MIT.  Period.  End of discussion.

In fact, what Swartz did was so blatantly wrong that I am sorely tempted to redact my THOUGHTS ABOUT AARON SWARTZ, “HACKING”, AND THE LAW post in its entirety.

However, I do believe the questions about whether Swartz’s actions warranted the kind of dogged, relentless pursuit that the DoJ engaged in deserve to be answered.  The case I understand sounds more like criminal mischief than anything else, so why was Aaron Swartz facing decades in prison?  Was he deliberately started because of his leadership in the anti-SOPA movement?  Those questions are still to be answered.

In the meantime, a White House petition has been started with the aim of removing U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who supervised the prosecution of in Swartz’s case, for “overreach.”

A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path.

Thoughts About Aaron Swartz, “Hacking”, and the Law

13.01.2013 (9:00 pm) – Filed under: Law,Technology ::

Although I did not know Aaron Swartz, as a technologist I am deeply intrigued – and alarmed – by the circumstances surrounding the well-known programmer’s recent suicide, weeks before he was scheduled to be tried in a high-profile hacking case.  Swartz’s crime?  He was charged with downloading electronic reams of documents from a marginally-secured network at MIT, an action that left him facing a possible 50 years in prison if convicted.

According Alex Stamos, the defense’s expert witness in the now-defunct case, Swartz did nothing legally wrong, nor was he guilty of anything except using more than his share of bandwidth.

Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.

So, if MIT’s network was open and no download limits were placed on the files, then why was the Swartz even charged? Indeed, that is the question and one that will probably never be answered. How does anything happen in the massive machine that is our legal system?

Obviously someone in the Department of Justice blew Aaron’s case out of proportion.  One person who might be able to answer this question – or be the answer – is Carmen Ortiz, the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. Despite the trivial nature of the case, Ortiz’s team went after Swartz with everything they had.  Given the outcome, I don’t think it’s asking to much for Ortiz to explain herself.  Even if Aaron had not done what he did, Ortiz’s pursuit of the insignificant document downloading case cost taxpayers thousands and thousand of dollars. And for what? Nothing.

Professor Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law school, has his own take: The DoJ overreacted to the case and, despite knowing the trivial nature of the alleged damages, charged ahead like a bully beating the tar out of a helpless victim on a school playground.  It’s hard to disagree.

In fact, the charges themselves are the crime in this case – a crime of stupidity on the part of the DoJ and Ms. Ortiz.

Was brain-dead overzealousness is the only reason the DoJ hounded Aaron Swartz into taking his own life?  Swartz, who was part of the RSS 1.0 and Reddit teams, was a central figure in the online rebellion against the Obama administration’s Internet security bill commonly known as SOPA.  SOPA was defeated in Congress after massive grassroots opposition was organized against it, in part by Demand Progress, in which Swartz was highly involved.  Could revenge have been a motive in the DoJ’s dogged pursuit of Swartz?  Another question we will probably never learn the answer to.

Aaron’s suicide will have the government officials involved distancing themselves from the case, almost as if nothing had happened.  But the facts of the case still demand answers.  If Aaron Swartz could be arrested, charged, threatened with decades of jail time, and put on trial – all because he inconvenienced a few network administrators at MIT – then the same thing could happen to any one of us.  And for what?

The purpose of the law is to protect the nation’s citizens from attack and exploitation.  The facts of this case indicate that it was Aaron Swartz who needed to be protected from the keepers of the law, not the other way around.

Not convinced?  Consider that a pair of hackers who were actually engaged in the illegal distribution of copyrighted materials were recently convicted of their crime.  Their punishment?  100 hours of community service.  The punishment fit the crime, in other words, an outcome that should be the goal of every criminal case the government decides to pursue.

As Professor Lessig says:

I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.”

Why indeed, Ms. Ortiz?

Open Letter to Rep. Bill Flores re SOPA

19.01.2012 (7:33 am) – Filed under: Politics,Technology ::

Dear Mr. Flores: 

I am writing in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Although I respect the need of media providers to market their works to customers, I feel very strongly that citizens of the United States and the world need a free and unfettered Internet – which is perhaps the last remaining space that remains relatively free from government interference – far more. 

Of course the Internet could hardly have been envisioned by the Founding Fathers; however, it should be recognized that it operates under the protection of two essential rights guaranteed under the Constitution, those being freedom of speech and freedom of association.  The fact that videos and music are occasionally bootlegged on the information super highway is not a valid reason for closing the road or adding "speed bumps".  Laws already exist to protect media giants – law makers and enforcement should use them instead of foolishly attempting to regulate the online activities of the world’s constituents.

In fact, the reality of the situation is that media  companies themselves bear much of the blame for online piracy.  Fifteen years ago music piracy was a major issue for them.  Then iTunes came along, established a legitimate online market, and the problem was effectively solved.  The same thing could and should happen in the video space today.  It will happen soon, once media companies stop squabbling and recognize that Netflix and its competitors are the market for the secondary release of their products.  This will happen in the natural course of events; no irreversible government action is required.

In conclusion, I urge you to recognize that SOPA is a bad idea that does not deserve to be considered by Congress, let alone be passed into law,  and to work diligently to make sure this ill-met legislation is withdrawn immediately.

Thank you,

Marc Moore

P.S.  Frankly I expect more than knee-jerk reactions from Republican lawmakers.  A bill like SOPA is enough to make me seriously re-think my steadfast support for the party I have consistently voted in favor of my entire life.

Net Neutrality the Status Quo and a Good Thing

06.04.2011 (10:14 am) – Filed under: Technology ::

The root premise of Internet and all TCP/IP networks is that all packets are treated equally. The last thing we need is Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, et al, “shaping” and prioritizing our data to fit their needs. These networks were largely built with public money and to this extent, just like the airwaves and wireless frequencies, are a shared resource. You don’t get a voice call put on hold because someone else’s call is more important to the carrier than yours, do you? Or because the carrier wants to sell you something? Net Neutrality is an underlying facet of the Internet. It’s the carriers that want to change that, long after the rules of the game were established.

Why Net Neutrality Matters

20.12.2010 (5:15 pm) – Filed under: Media,Technology ::

(Originally posted as a comment on the Huffington Post)

In contrast to the title of Dave Winer’s post, Net Neutrality is an important issue for all users of the Internet, for exactly the reasons he details. Can you imagine being charged more for when using a telephone to talk about politics and less when discussing football? The idea that some traffic on the Internet is more valuable than others is valid as relates to operational services such as DNS, etc. However, users should be free to visit sites of their choosing without censorship, performance penalty, or additional charges levied by common carriers.

Internet traffic is every bit as much of a commodity as electric power, yet no power company would dare attempt to charge more for watts used to operate a television and less for those for air conditioning. Bandwidth providers must be reminded their role in the greater Internet is to provide connectivity without prejudice or favoritism. If common carriers – emphasis on "common" – wish to provide content, they must do so based on the merits of that content and not because of their powerful position as the gatekeepers of our personal and business connection to the electronic world.

To iPhone or Not, That is the Question

11.04.2010 (12:47 pm) – Filed under: Business,Technology ::

I’d love to have an iPhone, but buying one would be like paying to see a Michael Moore movie – more money and power flowing in the wrong direction. Steve Jobs may be brilliant, but he’s a pain in consumers’ collective rear!

The FBI’s New Big Brother Plan

05.02.2010 (7:02 pm) – Filed under: Privacy,Technology ::

Privacy? Forget it now that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is at it again. CNET reports that the FBI is working overtime to ensure that Internet service providers (ISPs) will be forced to retain records of their customers’ use of the ‘Net for years after the fact and to make those records available to government agencies to use in criminal investigations.

In the last decade tens of millions of Americans have gotten online for entertainment, business, and even illegal purposes. Right behind them were the law enforcement officials of the FBI, CIA, and the rest of the other alphabet soup of the security apparatus.

Perhaps the highest-profile program the FBI implemented was called Carnivore, a massive Internet packet sniffer that could monitor the Internet traffic of crime suspects and ordinary, law-abiding citizens alike. The FBI defended the system, saying:

The Carnivore device works much like commercial "sniffers" and other network diagnostic tools used by ISPs every day, except that it provides the FBI with a unique ability to distinguish between communications which may be lawfully intercepted and those which may not.

As a software developer I can expertly state that, yes, the FBI could have been telling the truth. As an interested observer of the Bush administration’s tactics while running the War on Terror, I think it’s also safe to say that they were lying.

Now a new push is underway to make sure that more data than anyone dares imagine is kept on file, to be used against us.  While Greg Motta, the chief of the FBI’s digital evidence section, said that the bureau was not asking for the content data, such as the text of e-mail messages, be retained, there is no assurance whatsoever that the FBI would not retain its own records of such information and simply correlate that information with data provided by the ISPs.

Long-time readers will recall my assertions that telecom companies effectively had no choice but to turn over phone records to the government in the aftermath of 9/11. Private corporations are not equipped to stand up to the feds, nor should they be. Regardless of Mr. Motta’s assurances, this latest information warehousing scheme, which is supported wholeheartedly by state policing and other agencies in addition to the FBI, will lead to similar compromises of individual privacy.

Some celebrated when Carnivore was shut down, but that joy was misplaced. The custom sniffer program was disbanded in 2001, only to be replaced by a more effective commercial product, a change that demonstrates both the greater effectiveness of the private sector and the government’s determination to gather all available information about every one of us.

MySpace Stalker’s Conviction to be Dismissed

03.07.2009 (5:31 am) – Filed under: Justice,Law,Technology ::

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The LA Times says that U.S. District Judge George H. Wu will throw out the conviction of Lori Drew, the mother who stalked and harassed Megan Meier, a classmate of her daughter’s, until Megan committed suicide, when his written ruling is filed, probably next week.

“Is a misdemeanor committed by the conduct which is done every single day by millions and millions of people?” Wu asked. “If these people do read [the terms of service] and still say they’re 40 when they are 45, is that a misdemeanor?”

The prosecution’s case was in fact based on some unique interpretations of cyber-law and Wu ultimately failed to buy its argument.  From a technologist’s perspective the ruling does make sense.  An online service’s terms of service are essentially arbitrary and the act of violating them is not a legal matter in and of itself.

That said, this case is another clear indicator of the difference between what is right and what is legal.  Drew is guilty as sin of stalking, harassing, and bullying a vulnerable minor and she is the primary culprit in the girl’s death.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the law were actually the sharp-edged tool that proponents of social legalism purport it to be?  In a country where smoking a cigarette is a legal violation, it makes no sense that Lori Drew will walk away from this case a free woman.

Facebook Fumbles by Terminating Pro-Israel User

08.03.2009 (12:40 am) – Filed under: Technology,Terrorism ::

Robert Spencer reports that Facebook has cut off Todd Snider’s account after his pro-Israel Facebook page was hacked and vandalized by “Lebanese Shee’a Hackers” who left threats against Facebook’s system admins on Snider’s ruined page.

Caving in to people like these is not a good idea.  Unfortunately that’s exactly what Facebook has done.  By cutting Snider off they’ve allowed the radicals to gain another victory.  This may seem like a small thing, but a death by 10,000 cuts is still a death.

Spencer:

Facebook’s outrageous action is not only an assault on free speech and internet freedom and a breach of its own social networking protocols, but also appeasement of a group of hackers who have invaded Facebook’s space and who openly avow their support for the jihad terrorist group Hizballah.

We therefore urge all Facebook members who oppose Islamist terror and internet censorship to contact the site administrators through the Facebook contact form, and all others to join us in protesting against Facebook’s outrageous behavior by writing to abuse@facebook.com.

Not cool.  We should all should tell Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg that his people screwed this one up.

IBM to Relocate Laid-off Workers to India, Elsewhere

04.02.2009 (9:25 pm) – Filed under: Business,Technology,World ::

IBM has been shedding employees at a rapid rate in the last few years as its mainframe computer and consulting businesses struggle to compete.  In a novel twist, it’s new Project Match program will move some adventurous Americans overseas to be closer to new, lower-paid information technology workers.

“IBM has established Project Match to help you locate potential job opportunities in growth markets where your skills are in demand,” IBM says in an internal notice on the initiative. “Should you accept a position in one of these countries, IBM offers financial assistance to offset moving costs, provides immigration support, such as visa assistance, and other support to help ease the transition of an international move.”

InformationWeek says:

The climate is warm, there’s no shortage of exotic food, and the cost of living is rock bottom. That’s IBM’s pitch to the laid-off American workers it’s offering to place in India. The catch: Wages in the country are pennies-on-the-dollar compared to U.S. salaries.

The upside is that the cost of living is also much lower there, making the move potentially very interesting to some workers, especially during a recession at home. 

“It’s more of a vehicle for people who want to expand their life experience by working somewhere else,” said the spokesman. “A lot of people want to work in India.”

I think taking advantage of such an opportunity would be a really cool thing to do, especially if one is young and/or childless.  Working for a couple years in a foreign, exotic locale would be a source of some great life experience.