Hack It Open!
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 3/7/14

Internet capers in recent years have ranged from the fictional exploits of cyber-sleuth Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to the escapades of internet-freedom crusaders Anonymous and Aaron Swartz, whose suicide was a flashpoint in the short history of online vigilantism. In Swartz’s memory, “hacktivists” continue to challenge the boundaries of web access, asking what kind of information should be freely and openly available and whether providing it is a crime.

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Aaron Swartz  (1986–2013 | American internet activist)
to  Open Access Movement

In 2013 Aaron Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment. A crusader for the open access movement, which promotes the unrestricted online availability of scholarly and scientific research, Swartz was at the center of a much-publicized legal challenge. He was under indictment on federal charges for entering a utility closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in late 2010 and early 2011, signing onto university networks under a false account and illegally downloading 4.8 million articles and documents from Journal Storage, better known as JSTOR, a not-for-profit paid service that distributes scientific and academic journals. Charges in the case, including computer and wire fraud, carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Swartz was a cofounder of Demand Progress, an open access group that fights internet censorship and successfully lobbied against legislation that would have expanded the government’s role in website regulation. In 2008 Swartz joined open access activist Carl Malamud in downloading 20 million pages of documents from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), the repository for federal judicial documents. The FBI equated the men’s actions to stealing property worth $1.5 million but dropped the investigation without charging them.

Aaron Swartz  (1986–2013 | American internet activist)
to  Anonymous  (hacker collective | est. 2003)

Shortly after Aaron Swartz’s death, Anonymous, a loosely knit group of internet “hacktivists” (who often appear in public in masks bearing the grinning, mustachioed visage of early-17th-century British anarchist Guy Fawkes) broke into the website of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and replaced the home page with a video protesting the government’s treatment of Swartz. The group also infiltrated MIT websites and left a message that read in part, “Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice.”

Anonymous had also advocated for Army private Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning), who was found guilty of espionage violations for leaking 700,000 pieces of classified information to the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks and sentenced to 35 years in military prison. In 2010 Swartz had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to Manning’s treatment during his pretrial incarceration at a U.S. military base. Days after Swartz’s death, Texas senator John Cornyn, a member of the Judiciary Committee, asked attorney general Eric Holder, “Was the prosecution of Mr. Swartz in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information Act?”

Aaron Swartz  (1986–2013 | American internet activist)
to  WikiLeaks  (international whistleblowing organization | est. 2006)

It’s hardly surprising that Aaron Swartz, an articulate spokesperson for a free and open internet, has been linked to WikiLeaks, which is infamous for publishing classified government information online. After Swartz died, the organization disclosed via its official Twitter feed that the activist had been in communication with its founder, Julian Assange. “We have strong reasons to believe,” WikiLeaks tweeted, “but cannot prove, that Aaron Swartz was a WikiLeaks source.”

Assange has exposed material ranging from the Collateral Murder video (shot from a U.S. Army helicopter during a Baghdad airstrike that killed two journalists) to dossiers on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to U.S. diplomatic correspondence from the 1970s. Unlike Assange, Swartz was not out to lay bare government or corporate secrets. He was a Robin Hood–like crusader for making publicly funded material accessible, and in his quest to spread the wealth of information, he sometimes found himself on the right side of the law. In 2006, Swartz hacked into the Library of Congress bibliographic database and made it available for free on Open Library, a site he helped establish; the U.S. Copyright Office determined the activity was legal, because the database is government property and not copyright protected.

WikiLeaks  (international whistleblowing organization | est. 2006)
to  Anonymous  (hacker collective | est. 2003)

For a time, Anonymous was a strong advocate of WikiLeaks, as well as a source of information for the site, whose mission is to share classified information with the public. Anonymous allegedly provided WikiLeaks with 2 million Syrian government emails (including personal correspondence between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma). The relationship with at least some members of Anonymous became strained in 2012 when WikiLeaks installed a paywall, requesting donations from visitors for full website access, claiming, “WikiLeaks faces unprecedented costs due to involvement in over 12 concurrent legal matters…including our litigation of the U.S. military in the Bradley Manning case.” For many members of Anonymous, as well as other proponents of the open access movement, the request for money ran counter to their mission to make information on the internet available to the public for free. WikiLeaks, one hacktivist wrote, “has chosen to dishonor and insult Anonymous and all information activists.” A statement on Anonymous’s Twitter account suggested that WikiLeaks had become the “one-man Julian Assange show,” while another tweet, signifying that the unorganized, leaderless collective may harbor a few loose cannons, implored, “WikiLeaks, please die in a fire.”

Aaron Swartz  (1986–2013 | American internet activist)
to  Kim Dotcom  (b. 1974 | German internet entrepreneur and hacker)

The slight, soft-spoken Aaron Swartz was a computer wizard who helped develop RSS, the web-feed format online publishers use to continually update information; Creative Commons, the copyright licensing organization; and Reddit, a social-networking site. He was a committed internet activist, fighting not just to make information publicly available but also advocating freedom of expression and untracked movement on the web. Many in the international hacktivist community consider Swartz a martyr to the cause.

Kim Dotcom (born Kim Schmitz), a blustery giant of a man, supports similar causes but comes across as more of a profiteer than an altruist (his resemblance to James Bond villain Goldfinger doesn’t help). Many of his claims to philanthropy are unfounded, such as assertions that he hacked into Citibank, stole $20 million and transferred it to Greenpeace. The master hacker, who has trafficked in stolen phone card codes and pirated internet content, is currently fighting extradition from New Zealand to the U.S. to face charges of copyright infringement, racketeering and money laundering. Referring with some obvious self-interest to Swartz’s run-ins with U.S. prosecutors, Dotcom said of the deceased activist, “There was a political desire to destroy the life of this man, and unfortunately they succeeded.”

Anonymous  (hacker collective | est. 2003)
to  Lisbeth Salander  (fictional character | Millennium trilogy)

Lisbeth Salander, the multi-pierced, tattooed, waiflike heroine introduced in Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is a hacker’s hacker. Perched over the keyboard, she breaks into corporate records, bank accounts and government files, using her cyber prowess to steal funds from crooks and bring down the evil corporation that has besmirched the reputation of her righteous journalist cohort, Mikael Blomkvist.

Respecting the power her skills give her, Salander employs them for just causes. The international activists of Anonymous, in a similar vein, have shut down child pornography sites and have helped safeguard the websites of rebels fighting the repressive Tunisian government during the Arab Spring. The organization acted on behalf of open access when WikiLeaks published classified U.S. embassy cables and PayPal stopped taking donations that kept the whistleblowing site financially viable. Anonymous used software to flood PayPal’s website, rendering it useless—a masterful feat of cyberterrorism, perpetrated largely by males in their teens and 20s. That demographic makeup may explain Anonymous’s cyberattacks on Sony when the company tried to protect its PlayStation gaming network from hacking, but it raises questions about whether its members have the maturity to match the power they can wield.