According to CNN, the hacking collective Anonymous has sabotaged U.S. government servers and is threatening to release sensitive information gleaned from hacking into the Department of Justice. The move is in retaliation for the suicide of Aaron Swartz, who allegedly killed himself after being prosecuted for hacking. Swartz, 26, was the creator of popular website Reddit and online subscription tool RSS, making him a legendary name in tech circles. A proponent of the concept of a free and open Internet, Swartz allegedly hacked into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology JSTOR account to download over a million academic articles. He was charged with planning to disemminate those articles freely, violating copyright laws.
Critics of the federal prosecution of Swartz allege that prosecutors were far too strict on the young man, with charges against him potentially leading up to 30 years in prison. Though a plea deal offered Swartz between only four and six months in prison, Swartz’ supporters argue that the hacking crime was essentially victimless, making prison time and a lifetime label of “convicted felon” prosecutorial overreach. Anonymous, which subscribes to many of Swartz’ ideals, has responded in force.
I don’t like it. In fact, I am worried. Scared, even. Anonymous is not making the world better place by hacking into the Department of Justice. Rather, they are sowing fear. If Anonymous can hack into the DOJ after being angered, couldn’t they do the same to any of our personal accounts?
I think Aaron Swartz was wrong to hack into MIT’s JSTOR account, but now I worry about voicing my opinion. What if a Swartz supporter reads my writing and decides to retaliate, targeting my personal acounts? That’s an act of aggressive oppressor, not a lovable rogue hacker. Anonymous may like to think of itself as a collective of freedom-loving liberators and revolutionaries, representing the individual against the government, but instead of appearing like young Matthew Broderick a la 1983’s Wargames, Anonymous is looking more like the foul-tempered Jean-Paul Marat of the French Revolution, spreading intimidation.
When Anonymous waves about a “liberated” digital sheaf of classified information it makes me cringe instead of cheer. Because I know that the same tactics used against the government could be used, much more easily, against a private citizen like me.