The discussion begun by Aaron Swartz's suicide continues, prompting activity all around the internet. Overzealous prosecution of an outdated law, coupled with this tragedy, has led to hackathons
, proposed legislation
and criticism of the methods
employed by Carmen Ortiz. This past weekend, Anonymous added its two-cents worth in its own particular idiom
The action began Friday night when Anonymous took down the U.S. Sentencing Commission website, demanding reform of the justice system and threatening to expose a large number of files "secured" from the website. A very long statement of purpose accompanied this hack
, beginning with these paragraphs.
Citizens of the world,
Anonymous has observed for some time now the trajectory of justice in the United States with growing concern. We have marked the departure of this system from the noble ideals in which it was born and enshrined. We have seen the erosion of due process, the dilution of constitutional rights, the usurpation of the rightful authority of courts by the "discretion" of prosecutors. We have seen how the law is wielded less and less to uphold justice, and more and more to exercise control, authority and power in the interests of oppression or personal gain.
We have been watching, and waiting.
Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win -- a twisted and distorted perversion of justice -- a game where the only winning move was not to play.
Anonymous calls this takedown a "symbolic gesture," aimed at the home of federal sentencing guidelines, which it calls out for advancing "cruel and unusual" punishment, a clear violation of the 8th amendment. The collective also claims it has compromised several other government sites and obtained sensitive files, which it will start releasing to the press in "heavily redacted" form, unless its demands are met.
However, in order for there to be a peaceful resolution to this crisis, certain things need to happen. There must be reform of outdated and poorly-envisioned legislation, written to be so broadly applied as to make a felony crime out of violation of terms of service, creating in effect vast swathes of crimes, and allowing for selective punishment. There must be reform of mandatory minimum sentencing. There must be a return to proportionality of punishment with respect to actual harm caused, and consideration of motive and mens rea. The inalienable right to a presumption of innocence and the recourse to trial and possibility of exoneration must be returned to its sacred status, and not gambled away by pre-trial bargaining in the face of overwhelming sentences, unaffordable justice and disfavourable odds. Laws must be upheld unselectively, and not used as a weapon of government to make examples of those it deems threatening to its power.
Threats or no threats, the government took the USSC site offline and restored it to working order by Saturday... at which point it was hacked a second
time by Anonymous. This time the hackers weren't screwing around. Instead of a simple vandalization, the entire site was turned into an interactive game of Asteroids
The U.S. Sentencing Commission website has been hacked again and a code distributed by Anonymous "Operation Last Resort" turns ussc.gov into a playable video game.
Visitors enter the code, and then the website that sets guidelines for sentencing in United States Federal courts becomes "Asteroids."
Shooting away at the ussc.gov webpage reveals an image of Anonymous. The trademark Anonymous "Guy Fawkes" face is comprised of white text saying, "We do not forgive. We do not forget."
The code that turned the site "interactive" is very familiar to gamers.
The hack/game proved extremely popular, so Anonymous set up a mirror at another
compromised site, miep.uscourts.gov
(US Probation Dept.). At the time of writing this, both
sites are down, suggesting the government has taken both sites offline until they can be "safely" restored.
Will these takedowns have any noticeable effect on those Anonymous is trying to reach? Most likely, no. Hacking a government website just makes it easier for those prosecuting hackers to make their case. Stewart Baker at The Volokh Conspiracy suggests that these actions do more harm than good to the collective's stated aim
The exploit is probably counterproductive too. Apart from turning those who want reform of computer crime law into the allies of lawbreakers, Anonymous has substantively hurt the case for amending the CFAA. Heavy criminal penalties are entirely appropriate for people who hack a Supreme Court Justice’s account and disclose personal secrets. But it’s not easy to redraft the CFAA so it reflects the difference between Swartz and the Anonymous hackers, at least not without relying on precisely the prosecutorial discretion that the Swartz prosecutors misused.
Finally, I wonder if this incident won’t affect the Supreme Court’s approach to cybercrime issues. As Frank Rizzo once said, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. If that’s true, every time Anonymous mugs one of the Justices in cyberspace, it could be making the Court just a little less enthusiastic about limiting the tools the government uses to deter computer crime
In his take, Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice takes issue with Baker's statement regarding the enthusiasm level of the courts
Not that any of the justices have shown much enthusiasm up to now, but the alternative to bad isn't necessarily good. Things can always get worse.
While Baker argues that Anonymous makes things that much tougher for justice reform, Greenfield argues that hacking the USSC is especially pointless, considering how irrelevant the Sentencing Commission is at this point in time.
The first indication that Anonymous made a left turn when it should have made a right was when it picked the United States Sentencing Commission website to show its might. Nobody noticed, because, well, nobody cares about the USSC anymore.
Had this happened a generation ago, it might have meant something. Yesterday, it likely evoked a chuckle and a face palm. Post Booker and some actual crack reforms, it was a big nothing.
Yes, Anonymous is correct in its observation that the so-called "justice system" in the US is a corrupt and bloated entity, prone to abusing its power and control. But the USSC isn't the problem, not because it's the "good guys," but because the damage it can do is easily
outweighed by the public's keen interest in sabotaging its own freedoms.
So you guys can hack an outlier agency that has drifted into relative irrelevance. Got it. Have a nice day. The USSC is symbolic of nothing other than government bloat. The guidelines don't enable prosecutors to cheat citizens of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Citizens do that to each other. We do it each time we elect a legislator who calls for tougher laws. We do it each time we demand the creation of a new crime because of the tragic death of a child. We do it whenever we elevate safety over freedom. And that's what Americans do...
By taking out the USSC website, you disturbed nothing while annoying the government. When the head of the FBI cybersecurity squad gets done laughing, he's going to find someone else to prosecute. It may not be one of you, but it will be someone, or more likely, a whole gang of people with computers. And they have guns. Pissing them off over nothing isn't effective. It's just begging for retaliation, and the government has no sense of humor (or irony).
As much as we sometimes want an entity like Anonymous to strike back at wrongdoers, the likelihood of this action (especially
this one) resulting in any positive change remains near zero. Doubly frustrating is the fact that going through the "proper channels" to effect change has the same low odds. The hope here is that this action keeps the focus on the questionable methods and bad laws that resulted in the prosecution Aaron Swartz's and many others.
Considering there are many politicians (and many private contractors) that badly want their worst cyberwar fears to be true, this recent bout of hacktivism may give them all the ammo they want to push damaging legislation through while placing a badly needed CFAA update on the back burner.