When I was little, my brother got in trouble for sharing some sensitive information about a fellow student in class. This student was, in fact, cheating on one of the tests and because this exam was weighted, the cheater could have ruined everyone’s grades while propping up his own. My brother thought that he would be appreciated for sharing this bit of information, as he had helped the rest of the class a great deal. Instead, he was spurned by his fellow classmates because he had dared to actually report the person. My brother was shocked – he had done the right thing and was not only failing to be recognized for it, he was actively being shunned. The cultural status quo had somehow overridden the accepted rules of morality.
Everyday we rely on our faith in humanity to make sure that we are being treated fairly. That’s why many of us choose to entrust our money to banks, let other people take care of our children, and even refrain from counting our change. We oftentimes blindly hope that honesty is a founding basis for behavior and commerce in a civilized society. However, the events of the past few years regarding hacktivism have shown this to not be the case.
Businesses conduct massive fraud, private cloud storage is leaked, governments allocate significant resources to spying on American citizens – it is an unfortunate truth of living in the United States today. What’s worse is that big institutions will often intimidate their workers into keeping such material secret. Fear tactics and limited protection from the law pose obstacles to the release of information that the greater population has a right to know. Why do they have a right? Our democracy is fueled by voters who need to be inf ormed of situations that may affect them. If we prevent citizens from knowing about things that negatively affect them, then the power shifts from the people to business and government.
My brother thought that his actions would be appreciated, but instead he was vilified. The same situation occurs with hackers and whistleblowers today. Edward Snowden was forced to escape to Russia to evade prosecution by the US government – but was the information he leaked important to the American people? In theoretical good practice, whistleblowers release information about an institution that they believe is harming both people and the “system” at large. They are not only significant, they are necessary to prevent any company or government from evading the law and will of the people and are the main reason why whistleblower protections are desperately needed. Snowden attempted to release the documents through proper channels where it would be read and his message would be heard, but many mistakes have been made in the process. Americans had trouble understanding what exactly the documents meant and how that affected them directly. But, nevertheless, these papers documenting the US government’s surveillance on its own citizens were an important shock to the naïve belief that the US doesn’t spy on its own people. Without Snowden, the situation could have gotten worse and worse. However, even though whistleblowers like Snowden are important, it is also imperative to remember that there can be a fine line between someone who works for an institution and someone who hacks a computer network for information.
By stating that Aaron Swartz’s actions were justified as they shed light on the actions of the US Federal Court (the end justifies the means, as it were) is to simply gloss over the initial action. Aaron Swartz illegally hacked and stole information from government servers. He took documents (all of which he couldn’t have possibly read) and released them to the public. Naturally, the nature of any private documents could be sensitive in some cases – the ignorance and naivety shown through the lack of effort put in releasing said papers highlights the dangers of not punishing hackers who show incredibly bad judgment that may even seriously endanger the United States. Although the court documents that Swartz released were government court files and therefore should have been under the public domain, it is an example of the dangerous possibilities that exist within the practice.
The problem with many hackers that leak information is that when they hack a network they are not on the lookout for anything specific to make public. It is one thing to suspect a company is doing wrong and quite another to take it upon oneself to police another by hacking into their private information with no reasonable purpose. It would be like an officer searching your car because they just want to be sure nothing illegal is inside of it – as opposed to wanting to search your car because it matches a description of a car just used in a crime. The difference, while small, is monumental in both theory and application. When we leave the policing up to individuals, we are liable as a nation to the risk of huge errors (and even acts of terrorism) being made in the name of “hacktivism”. Swartz’s glaring error is that he hacked into MIT’s servers which contained not only private, but copyrighted and valuable (monetarily) papers. It was not a case of releasing informat ion that should have been public, as in with the court documents.
The social stigma around “telling on a person” still runs strong through our culturally accepted normalities, as in the case with my brother. And, to some extent, we can still see examples of such attitudes existing today, especially with hackers and whistleblowers. Many people who are only somewhat informed on Edward Snowden’s actions still continue to confuse him with Julian Assange, while others discredit him for releasing top secret documents. But, does the end really justify the means? In the case of whistleblowers and hackers, it is a fine line to tread; especially when the papers may have sensitive material within them. The “right thing” is a fluid concept – one that the offending institutions will no doubt twist and warp to justify their actions when sent under the magnifying glass. The advent of the internet, and its growth as a staple within our lives, creates new strengths and vulnerabilities that will need to be examined in the future. It is impossibl e to know or predict any permanent answers to the problems that face us today, but it is people like Swartz and Snowden that are instrumental in challenging the accepted norm and force us to question (and rightly so) the true meaning of morality and its application as a country.