Glenn Greenwald: Meet the Journalist Rotting in Prison for Crossing the FBI
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Aaron's Swartz's suicide in January triggered waves of indignation, and rightly so. He faced multiple felony counts and years in prison for what were, at worst, trivial transgressions of law. But his prosecution revealed the excess of both anti-hacking criminal statutes, particularly the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and the fixation of federal prosecutors on severely punishing all forms of activism that challenge the power of the government and related entities to control the flow of information on the internet. Part of what drove the intense reaction to Swartz's death was how sympathetic of a figure he was, but as noted by Orin Kerr, a former federal prosecutor in the DOJ's computer crimes unit and now a law professor at GWU, what was done to Swartz is anything but unusual, and the reaction to his death will be meaningful only if channeled to protest other similar cases of prosecutorial abuse:
"I think it's important to realize that what happened in the Swartz case happens in lots and lots of federal criminal cases. . . . What's unusual about the Swartz case is that it involved a highly charismatic defendant with very powerful friends in a position to object to these common practices. That's not to excuse what happened, but rather to direct the energy that is angry about what happened. If you want to end these tactics, don't just complain about the Swartz case. Don't just complain when the defendant happens to be a brilliant guy who went to Stanford and hangs out with Larry Lessig. Instead, complain that this is business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country - mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone else much caring."
Prosecutorial abuse is a drastically under-discussed problem in general, but it poses unique political dangers when used to punish and deter online activism. But it's becoming the preeminent weapon used by the US government to destroy such activism.
Just this week alone, a US federal judge sentenced hactivist Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer to 3 1/2 years in prison for exploiting a flaw in AT&T's security system that allowed him entrance without any hacking, an act about which Slate's Justin Peters wrote: "it's not clear that Auernheimer committed any actual crime", while Jeff Blagdon at the Verge added: "he cracked no codes, stole no passwords, or in any way 'broke into' AT&T's customer database - something company representatives confirmed during testimony." But he had a long record of disruptive and sometimes even quite ugly (though legal) online antagonism, so he had to be severely punished with years in prison. Also this week, the DOJ indicted the deputy social media editor at Reuters, Matthew Keys, on three felony counts which carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for allegedly providing some user names and passwords that allowed Anonymous unauthorized access into the computer system of the Los Angeles Times, where they altered a few stories and caused very minimal damage. As Peters wrote about that case, "the charges under the CFAA seem outrageously severe" and, about Keys' federal prosecutors, observed: "apparently, they didn't take away any lessons from the Aaron Swartz case."
But the pending federal prosecution of 31-year-old Barrett Brown poses all new troubling risks. That's because Brown - who has been imprisoned since September on a 17-count indictment that could result in many years in prison - is a serious journalist who has spent the last several years doggedly investigating the shadowy and highly secretive underworld of private intelligence and defense contractors, who work hand-in-hand with the agencies of the Surveillance and National Security State in all sorts of ways that remain completely unknown to the public. It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.