Relooking At Young Hactivists

By Katie Kieffer

Young person in hoodie.

Image credit: Photo by quantum bunny on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Pause and reflect on this hypocrisy: The Department of Justice prosecutes young hackers who use computers to promote free speech while highly educated adults within the DOJ threaten to use lethal drone force against American citizens without due process. Which is worse?

Certainly, I do not condone hacking. However, you and I need to start talking about the best way to handle cyberattacks while also recognizing that the same government officials we trust to protect us are assaulting our constitutional freedoms.

Last month, cybersecurity firm Madiant released an explosive, 76-page report indicating that the Chinese government is most likely sanctioning and responsible for a bulk of the cyberattacks against the U.S. government and American companies.

This month, the New York Times reported top U.S. intelligence official James Clapper Jr. alerting Congress: “a major cyberattack on the U.S. could cripple the country’s infrastructure and economy … such attacks now pose the most dangerous immediate threat to the U.S., even more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks, such as al-Qaida.”

Cyberattacks are becoming a menace and we need to find a better way to prevent them.

Steve Jobs Was a Hacker

One thing that you should know about the computer, tablet or smart phone and the internet that you are using to read this column: They would not exist if an intelligent young person had not broken rules in order to advance technology.

Did you know that Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were famous pranksters? Wozniak spent a night in a juvenile detention center for one prank and Jobs was suspended from school more than once.

Jobs and Wozniak were also hackers. In fact, if it were not for a hacking prank they played that allowed them to manipulate AT&T’s infrastructure, iPads would not exist. In 1971, Wozniak and Jobs discovered an article on hackers in Esquire that gave them clues into creating Blue Box technology to override AT&T’s network and make free long-distance calls.

Wozniak and Jobs followed the clues in the Esquire article to a technical journal article on the tones that route phone calls in the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center’s library. Armed with these two articles, rebellion and raw intelligence, Wozniak created the first digital Blue Box.

Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson: “If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple. I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and I learned how to work together and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production. …You cannot believe how much confidence that gave us.”  Isaacson adds: “They had created a device with a little circuit board that could control billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure.”

Around the same time that Jobs and Woz were up to trouble, a teenager named Bill Joy was up to his own “trouble” in the University of Michigan’s Computer Center. Computers were brand-new, gigantic and insanely expensive to “play on” per hour. Joy and his prodigy friends discovered: “…that if you put in ‘time equals’ and then a letter, like t equals k, they wouldn’t charge you [for programming time]. It was a bug in the software. You could put in t equals k and sit there forever,” Joy tells Malcolm Gladwell in the book, “Outliers.”

Since he was a smart little prankster, Joy was able to accrue thousands of hours of programming time for free and his knowledge ended up benefiting society. Gladwell explains: “…Joy took on the task of rewriting UNIX, which was a software system developed by AT&T for mainframe computers. Joy’s version was very good. It was so good, in fact, that it became—and remains—the operating system on which literally millions of computers around the world run.”

Joy, Jobs and Wozniak were “productive pranksters.” Here is the question I am asking you to consider: Is there a way for us productively leverage the talent of hactivists to combat foreign cyberattacks?

Pentagon Failing to Harness Hacking Talent

The Pentagon is currently partnering with defense contractors to sponsor events that educate young people to become the future defensive hackers of America with contests for students like the CyberLympics.

But if you are a smart prankster like Jobs, Joy or Wozniak, the Pentagon will kick you out. Discovery News reports: “A recent Pentagon report called for tripling the number of workers at the U.S. Cyber Command, but there’s one big hitch. To become a cyber professional working in government, potential employees have to have exceptionally clean records. That means no arrests or expulsions for hacking into school computers or shutting down websites.”

American (not Chinese) hacktivists are currently facing 10, 15 or 124-year maximum sentences if convicted. One of the world’s top-ranking hacktivists, Christopher Doyon, faces 15 years for a 30-minute online protest against Santa Cruz county’s website and is now seeking temporary asylum in Canada. Why don’t we figure out a way to leverage this talent in a positive way?

Throwing smart, talented hackers in jail or sending them scurrying to Canada will likely incite more cyberattacks. Perhaps we could offer these young hackers immunity from prosecution in exchange for a position protecting U.S. infrastructure, cellphone networks and utilities from foreign cyberattacks. They might refuse the offer but it seems worth a shot.

Additionally, a proactive measure Washington could take against cyberattacks would be to stop trying to unconstitutionally squash internet freedom (think the PROTECT IP Act or PIPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA and net neutrality regulations.)

The federal government has no business, per the Constitution, hyper-regulating our free speech or commerce on the internet. Hacker groups like Anonymous oppose excessive government intrusion and will continue to disrupt sites like the Department of Justice until our government starts reforming its ways.

Certainly, I am not saying that hackers have the right to take down government websites. But our politicians routinely pass unconstitutional laws and executive orders that threaten lethal drone force without due process against American citizens, attack private technology, force employers to pay for contraception coverage and stonewall the internet. Isn’t it a tad hypocritical for hackers go to jail while politicians receive praise for doing much worse?

The Department of Justice should not be shocked if smart young people utilize hacking as a last-ditch effort to get the government’s attention and make the statement that Americans will not quietly hand over their natural rights of free speech and private property.

I also think our government should try to peacefully and productively harness the incredible talent in these young hackers instead of letting it go to waste in a prison cell. I am not saying we should reward hactivists for damaging pranks. Hacking is wrong. However, I am sure most Americans are glad that Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and Steve Wozniak did not waste their youth and talent in prison because they were smart and bold enough to experiment with hacking. Plus, don’t you question the integrity of DOJ officials who propose using drones against American citizens while acting like they are heroes for hunting down teenage programmers?

Referenced for this column: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs,” pages 23-30 and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” pages 35-47.

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  1. Peyton says:

    Great column. I've never thought about it this way. You always have a unique, thought-provoking angle, Katie. Keep up the writing!

    • Marie Frances says:

      I totally agree with you!
      Keep up the work, Katie 🙂

      • littlejohn says:

        Hi Katie,
        Hmm., Not so sure just yet. i am going to continue to think about this but rewards for illegal activities are becoming a theme in this country (In my opinion). I would have to become more convinced this is not just another contributor to what I see a cultural problem.

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