Tough Guys and Buttercups

The line between excoriating a person or group and explaining what’s wrong with a line of reasoning and bad attitude so that, just maybe, a bell will go off in their heads, can be very thin.  It varies from person to person. Some get it. Others don’t.

Shortly after I posted about Ladar Levison’s really bad call, the post was picked up by a hacker blog, which noted how smart people often indulge in the grievously mistaken assumption that brilliance in one discipline translates to brilliance in others, including the law.  This brought people here to “inform” us that we were wrong, that no good lawyer would talk to a person unless he plunked $50,000 down for a retainer; that no tech guy can find a good lawyer anyway. If you read the comments here regularly, you will remember these.

Lawyers read these comments and shake their heads. That too misses the point, as they may be ridiculously wrong on the substance, but are right about what they think. These are the notions that pervade a group of people, are widely spread within the group, and upon which individuals act. They may be wrong, but that is their reality.

Trying to dispel these misguided ideas is a two-fold problem. First, hackers are a tough group to handle, as they don’t care to be told much of anything. They are wildly independent, and have a peculiar subculture to which they cling with all their might.  Frankly, it’s a pretty cool subculture provided you have a high tolerance for snark and hyperbole, and a juvenile sense of humor. Sorry, but it’s true.

They are also, largely, Millennials, and as such do not take kindly to any handling short of adoration and the occasional tummy rub. Certain of their brilliance and coolness, and reinforced by their circle of friends, they tend to be pretty comfortable with their own ideas, regardless of subject.

This hasn’t worked well for them, though the reaction hasn’t always been that they might be mistaken, but that the system sucks and they are cool outlaws.  They can be tough guys in their own minds, but not tough enough to handle criticism. That makes them cry, and creates some very difficult issues between lawyer and client when they find themselves involuntarily embroiled in the legal system.

In a comment by a crypto guy in reaction to my contention that judges won’t allow the law to be driven by technology, following a rant worthy of the sovereign citizens, he wrote:

Lawyers, largely baffled and thus deeply intimidated/insulted by, technology find this lack of power on the part of the black-robed ones to be unsettling at an epistemological level. Or so my lawyer friends tell me.

This is the sort of indulgent arrogance that gives rise to two discrete problems, the first being why hackers do so poorly in court, and the second being why hackers don’t seek or desire the immediate assistance of competent counsel to help them. They don’t need lawyers. Lawyers are dopes. Hackers own the physical laws, and have no use for the stupid ones men make.  Judges may think they are more powerful than physics, but they’re not. Fools.

And so, they view what appears here, on a law blog, written by a lawyer about the law, with disdain:

You’ve done a nice job on this blog of excoriating “hackers” for being dumb about the law. I suspect many technologist are simply disgusted by the perversion that American conceptions of “justice” has become. Sure, there’s a risk this monster will grab any given person and destroy her life in its grinding need to prove its power, over and over. That’s true. Given a limited livespan as mortal beings, many of us choose to avoid entanglement with this abortion of a “justice system” as much as possible – for good reason.

The first sentence, the characterization of “excoriating ‘hackers’ for being dumb about the law,” both angers and saddens me.  Why would a hacker think he would be anything but “dumb” about the law. He’s not a lawyer. There is no reason why he should be otherwise. But posts about hackers aren’t written to excoriate them, even though they aren’t filled with hugs and tummy rubs about how wonderful they are and how awful the law treats them.

While there are no doubt lawyers, and certainly judges, who are technologically challenged, a point made here many times, to characterize lawyers as being the weak link for not appreciating the genius of technology is to indulge in a myopic view. Hackers, who enjoy a world of binary precision, are baffled by the ambiguity of the law, its subjective nature, its unreliability.  Scientific method demands that validity is repeatable. The law, not so much, despite its pretense of precedent and some lawyers relying on it despite having been smacked upside the head by twisted decisions time and again.

But lawyers get used to functioning in this bizarre world. It’s what we do. It’s not what hackers do, and there is no reason why they should find it normal.  That’s why there are people do different things with their lives, so that different bases are covered. Need encryption? Go to a crypto guy. Need to defend against the government, go to a lawyer who knows how to fight the government. See how that works?

But there is one further indulgence to which some hackers believe they’re entitled:

Given a limited livespan as mortal beings, many of us choose to avoid entanglement with this abortion of a “justice system” as much as possible – for good reason.

Yes, the “justice system” can be called an “abortion” for good reason. No, you do not get to “avoid entanglement” because you don’t like it. It’s the “as much as possible” language where the two intersect.  You want to stay clear of the system? Great. Comply with every abortion of a law the system comes up with, and pray (recognizing, of course, that most hackers aren’t doting theists) that they don’t come at you anyway because even if you’re cool, someone you do business with isn’t, or maybe just for no good reason at all.

But there is no way for any person to assure he doesn’t get wrapped up in the legal system. And when you do, you get to make choices. Making the right choices, the ones that will not only help you but create the greatest likelihood of the development of favorable law rather than horrendous law, is critical.  These posts aren’t meant to excoriate hackers, but to save them, and with them, the rest of us.  If you were as smart as you think you are, you would have understood that.




30 thoughts on “Tough Guys and Buttercups

  1. Dan

    Maybe I’m going off topic, but a lot of this discussion reminds me of the days when Napster rose to prominence. You could get any song you wanted for free and it was great, even though some people scratched their head and said hmm, kinda sounds like copyright infringement, or stealing. Usually a comment was greeted by something like, no man, you don’t understand, its just sharing, because blah, blah, blah, slightly technical explanation of why it was sharing and not copying or stealing. Anyway, where’s Napster now?

    1. SHG Post author

      One of the tenets of the hacker religion is that information wants to be free, and that includes music, video, movies, academic journals, everything. Whether one agrees or disagrees matters greatly to them. To the law and lawyers, not so much. It comes back one of the fundamental questions: what is the law, not what would you like the law to be. That’s where they get hung up.

      1. Jack

        Not so much – I completely disagree as someone who is literally a hacker by trade (penetration testing). Maybe the hacker sitting in his Mom’s basement eating Funyons believes that (the image so many in the public conjure up when someone mentions “hacker”), but for most of us actually in the InfoSec industry (the actual hackers), we spend our whole lives making sure data isn’t free and is kept under lock and key. I would argue hackers actually believe that while knowledge should be free – all data should never be free. That is how we stay employed. If we didn’t believe in IP and security, there would be no reason to peruse a career in software or IT.

        I was at InfoSeCon yesterday in Raleigh and every presentation and the general consensus among attendees is that keeping data secure is paramount (even among the guys wearing the Guy Fawkes masks at the CTF and the Lock-Picking stations…). I doubt you could find more than a handful of people among the 300+ that were there who would agree with what you call a “tenet of the hacker religion.”

        Are there people who believe that? Of course there are but I posit they are a tiny, tiny minority. Most of us like our jobs and like getting paid for what we create and work on and don’t enjoy people stealing our shit as much as the next guy. You just don’t hear about us because we don’t go around DDoSing everyone and acting like children having a temper tantrum every time something happens we don’t like.

        1. SHG Post author

          You are correct, though I don’t personally know the split between kid hackers and InfoSec guys. One of my primary sources about all this is an InfoSec guy, who very much thinks as you do, but bemoans the kids and yet defends them as one of his own. I suspect he realizes the vitality of InfoSec is tied to the weakest link in the hacker community, and that’s why we fight for the Weevs, the Levisons, the Aaron Swartzes (whose manifesto and “crime” was all about freeing information) and anybody else whose case implicates computer law that will come back to bite all of us in the butt.

    2. pj_cryptostorm

      It’s called bittorrent – look it up 😛

      Napster got smashed because it was physically subject to the dictates of U.S. police power.

      So new projects evolved that are not as directly subject to such power. Those projects are doing just fine. The Napster example is a wonderful test-case of how guns and judges don’t actually change how the physical universe works. At all.

      Ironically, the common thread in all that is Usenet. It never went away in the first place, and any bitstream of “protected” content can be found there nowadays. But since the USA Today doesn’t write articles about it, the non-tech world is largely ignorant of its existence. That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

      But in truth, the real reason many folks don’t hunt down a .torrent or find the binaries on Usenet nowadays is that, finally, the “music industry” started making its beloved “protected by law” content available in a customer-friendly, efficient system online. With that option, lots of folks are more than happy to pay for access to artistic content. It was the absence of that option that birthed Napster, and bt, and the popularity of Usenet for sharing binaries, and all the rest. That the non-tech world fought against the obvious market demand for access to content via this new distribution channel is one of the odder moments in an odd narrative arc.

      That the company who broke the “monopoly of idiocy” preventing effective digital distribution of artistic content was not a media company at all, but rather a tech company born and bred (Apple), sort of qualifies as ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι.

      1. SHG Post author

        Oh, bittorrent isn’t exactly a secret to lawyers. Neither is usenet.

        Just because you don’t know we know doesn’t mean we don’t know, at least to the extent necessary to do our jobs. After all, it certainly kept DPR’s Silk Road a big secret, right?

        1. Fubar

          Neither is usenet.

          I don’t wish to add to any contentiousness between techno-geeks and lawyers here.[1] But I do want to point out that your link was to a news report about, not about usenet the network.

          Usenet was not would be better characterized as a “web2news” server. Google Groups is a similar operation.

          The *IAA did not sue usenet the network of NNTP servers. The *IAA sued, one of many providers which participated in and used usenet the network of NNTP servers. Many ISPs once maintained NNTP servers. But those numbers diminished considerably after the introduction of http protocol and the fluorescence of teh whirled wide web.

          FN 1: Because I’ve done both professionally, but am now sensibly retired. Well, maybe not so sensibly.

          1. SHG Post author

            That’s what I get for linking a quickie example, but it wasn’t worth too much of my time. Aside from PJ, the idea is spreading and understood. There is the occasional anarcho-narcissist, but most are coming to grips with the more important issues of how to protect themselves and their work from the government, so wasting too much time on the outlier isn’t worth it.

            1. Fubar

              There is the occasional anarcho-narcissist, but most are coming to grips with the more important issues of how to protect themselves and their work from the government, …

              I don’t have a handle on the numbers there, just my own subjective impressions. I’ve certainly encountered the hacker or technogeek (mis)understanding of law.

              The genre of misunderstanding is not limited to hackers and technogeeks, though they often provide particularly stark examples. Anybody who ever represented a criminal defendant has doubtless heard the half-question, half-demand, “Can’t you just tell the judge, blah blah blah? Then he’ll cut me loose.”

              I think the underlying problem is as Ultraviolet admin pointed out below (and you many times as well), a failure to distinguish between what the law is and what one wants the law to be. Among the lawyer’s dismal professional tasks is to point out to the misinformed and confused that wishes are not horses, so beggars can’t ride.

            2. SHG Post author

              A friend of mine who works with EFF and also maintains a private practice told me how many times he’s been fired by hackers because they refuse to accept his explanation of the system or the law. They don’t like it. They reject it. They fire the lawyer for telling them. This has got to change or the state of the law will continue to deteriorate.

              And while my experience is that many are either learning to accept that they have to deal with reality or, at least, self-preservation, there are still the anarcho-narcissists among them, and it’s unlikely they will ever listen to a lawyer. They are much too smart.

  2. Jake DiMare

    Not that I think it matters to you one bit, but I want to start by saying I get your point. If Levinson wasn’t arrogant about his limited understanding of the law he might have avoided some procedural problems, as unjust as they may be, if he had appropriate representation in the court system.

    I think where I’ve gotten hung up and trampled on this blog before is a matter of missed expectations. I make the false assumption that because this blog is called Simple Justice you are discussing capital J justice. The kind we read about on Wikipedia or hear in Professor Michael Sandel’s podcast lectures.

    That’s what I see in pj_cryptostorm’s comments and, however poorly in my own tedious fumbling with language, the kind of rhetoric I’ve tried to share. Imagine our surprise when you are talking about practical justice and the law…Something you don’t have to be a ‘slackoise’ or Millennial to recognize is broken.

    Now here’s the hard part, since you’ve given me so many tummy rubs lately. Whether you, Scott Greenfield, are the nice guy I suspect you are…Your station in life, your role, as a criminal defender, is commonly perceived as a particularly greasy cog in the utterly broken machine lawyers, cops, judges, for profit prisons, and legislators refer to as ‘justice’ while informed members of the public observe with anger, frustration and, sometimes, downright laughter at the utter incongruity of it all. And here you are…A willing representative of this system with a public blog who will engage with seemingly any and all comments. Frankly, I applaud your endurance.

    So yes, you are correct (of course). In the most practical sense thugs can, and will, under the banner of law, ruin lives. All while simultaneously ignoring the most egregious offenses against society committed by men with white collars. Does that make it Justice? Real Justice?

    1. SHG Post author

      Ah, my old pal Jake. Hi, Jake. How are you? Life good? See what a nice guy I am? Cool, right?

      Now to your comment. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and along the way, various people have “explained” to me what the title of my blog means. You are the latest to try your hand at it. You didn’t do any better than your predecessors. You both project your understanding (which is kinda remarkably given what I’ve said to you in the past) and imputed too much to a title.

      My posts say what they say. No more. No less. To the extent I can express myself with sufficiently clarity, they are clear. To the extent the internet brings an audience too broad for one writing to suffice to be clear to all readers, I cannot help the fact that my words will not be understood. That’s the cross I bear writing a blog. I’m okay with it.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s been a pleasure. Have a nice day. Be well.

    2. Dan

      If you think the law is broken, write your congressman. 8th grade civics class. Upbraiding defense lawyers and/or judges for not pursuing your vision of justice isn’t going to do it.

    3. Alex Stalker

      One of your mistakes is imputing the actions of the legal system as a whole to SHG. Lawyers (and especially defense attorneys) do not endorse the way things currently work simply by working within the system any more than someone endorses the way our government currently functions by voting in an election.

      If you read the rest of the blog, it is pretty clear that SHG discusses topics of interest to him, including what he perceives as injustice. You are saddling his posts with your emotional baggage, and that is causing you to misunderstand what is written.

  3. Ultraviolet admin

    I’ll bite since I’m technically a millennial, and one of the things that got me interested in law was reading hacker culture blogs and news.

    While I’ll take offense with the tummy rubs bit, the large truth is something you said: Hackers and such are smart, but their talent is in a different field. Like I said before, I do work with tech no criminal, so I interact all the time with programmers and others who are smart folks, but are not lawyers.

    They have a strong belief of what they think, based on their experiences, is justice. The problem is A: it’s a subjective view of justice; B: they think it’s an objective view of justice. I’ve heard more than one highly educated engineer tell me what patent and copyrights mean, only for me to shake my head and have to break apart the law for them on how they are wrong.

    Some of it is that in Engineering there is a right answer that is objectively right. Law is more subjective and fact dependent. The big part here that hits our conversation is to them a stupid law or unjust law (or one they don’t understand the reasoning of) is one they think shouldn’t matter since it’s not objectively right. For instance, in file sharing, the laws are arguably excessive and unjust, but I’ve seen people have the dumbest explanations for why someone who shares shouldn’t of been convicted because they feel it’s wrong to have the law.

    And I’ve seen the reverse, lawyers and marketing types who dictate industrial designs for good legal and business reasons, but sometimes those break the underlying system.

    Smart people have the problem of recognizing when they’re not competent in a field. I have a strange multidisciplinary education that ironically has hammered into my head how much I don’t know, while I’ve seen others that have all their education and focus in one field they are absolute masters in get angry when someone suggests their knowledge in electrical engineering is not applicable in the law.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, lawyers can be just as susceptible to thinking they know what they don’t know as anyone else. But then, if you screw up industrial design, you rarely get imprisoned for it. You just end up like Whirlpool or LP.

      Edit: See PJ’s comment below? That’s what we’re talking about. And while I hope he never needs to find out what he’s really made of, if he does, he’s going to learn that talk is cheap, a prison cell sucks and it’s not his choice to “opt-out” of the criminal justice system because he doesn’t like it.

      1. pj_cryptostorm

        Indeed, I cannot possibly imagine what SHU time is like. It’s literally beyond my imagination. Stand-up counts, corrlinks, SIS investigations, AB shenanigans, WitSec whisk-aways, DHO hearings, Unit Manager politics, Grand Prairie designation games… it’s all more than I could ever understand.

        Err, wait… is this a cockfight to see who has spent more time in lockup? An interesting metric, that. 🙂

        1. SHG Post author

          Yes, you sound very sophisticated. I’m sure you know all about those things, and you’re very special. But your last line betrays you, and you don’t even know why.

          By the way, I’ve tossed your lengthier comments tonight. Waste your own bandwidth on your nonsense. Not mine.

  4. pj_cryptostorm

    Well, so much for the theory that “hackers” are too dumb to hire expensive lawyers to defend themselves:

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

    Perhaps it’s more of a straw-man position designed to be easy to attack? Given the surfeit of ad hominems lacing these discussions, such would seem to fit the model fairly well. 😛

    1. SHG Post author

      If you’re going to use words like “ad hominem,” learn what they mean first. And no links. You’re still not special.

  5. pj_cryptostorm

    Awww… seems we hit the spot where you’re not having fun any more and the banhammer comes out.

    This has been a productive conversation for me (which is why I’ve dallied with it the past few days). It confirmed some suspicions I had, and clarified the thinking of several of us working on a current project.

    I’m sorry you can’t handle debate with someone who isn’t intimidated by your verbal spew. It must really gall you when it’s someone who also knows tech, one of those “hackers” who make you feel so powerless and limited compared to the magical mad skillz you impute to us. Oh well – nobody ever said life was fair.

    I’m sure only you will read this comment, so I must ask: how much time have you done, & at what institutions? I’m guessing, well, zero. So much for the tough guy routine 😛 Word of advice: you’d not do well inside – insecure people have it hard, there. Lawyers, especially. Or so I’ve heard.

    Then again, you’re clearly no Lynne Stewart so that’s not likely to be in your future, posturing aside.

    Enjoy your ignorance, and keep cashing those CJA checks – they’re a damned sight better than unemployment insurance, eh? 😉

    ps: you should update your wordpress install. If someone bothered to be insulted by your peevish antics here, they’d wipe this thing clean. Which would be obnoxious but, as you have so powerfully demonstrated here today, the world is full of obnoxious assholes. Fortunately for you, I’m not one of them.

    pps: I’ve archived my comments here that you couldn’t handle publishing. As time permits, we’ll post them up in “our world” as a warning to folks who might get suckered by scammy lawyers driven by hatred of people smarter than they are. Just as, you know, a public service. So no worries on your censorship – I knew it’d come, as it’s in your nature to be a petty tyrant if given the chance. I might not be the genius about reading people – you sure figured me out fast, phew! – but even I know that. Cheers!

    1. SHG Post author

      Well, now that you’ve beaten the conspiracy of scammy lawyers like me to silence brilliant hackers like you because of my “hatred of people smarter” than I am, and you have the archived comments to prove it, no doubt you and your friends will solve the world’s problems. Best of luck with that, PJ. You’ve got it all figured out.

      And curious that you chose Lynne Stewart as your example. While it’s very impressive that you have the mad skillz to hack a wordpress blog, you might want to invest a bit of that into learning how to google. Maybe then you be more circumspect.

      I hope you remain safe and that this is all an academic issue for you. I wish no one to be forced to deal with the government and criminal justice system. But if it should happen, I hope you will have the maturity and wisdom to handle it far better than what you’ve written here. Now we’re done.

  6. Erik H.

    I think much of the problem is that digital and copyright law diverges from “common sense” to a larger degree than many other areas of law.

    In most fields, “what people think is illegal” is actually a surprisingly close match to “what is illegal.” Even though laypeople will get it wrong fairly often, they have a pretty good sense of the generics of the law. As a result, most intelligent folks with a good education have a high tendency to make reasonably accurate legal predictions.

    In the computer world, that isn’t true. The laws are so convoluted that they often don’t make any sense in a broader way. As a result there’s a MUCH reduced link between education, intelligence, and general knowledge of legal standards. I would argue that this stems from the fact that the laws are ridiculous.

    “Wait a second: you mean you can get charged for printing text on a T-shirt?”
    Why, yes, you can, if it’s code to crack DVD copying.
    “Wait a second: you mean I can’t resell or copy something that I paid for?”
    Why yes, that’s right, under certain licenses.
    “Wait a second; can the government really do that? It can’t be right!”
    Yes. Yes, they can.

    And so on.

    I don’t think that this primarily stems from a failure of the hacking community to think about the law. I think that it primarily stems from a failure of the community to recognize that–unlike almost all other areas–their laws are too bizarre to be understood by “thinking about it.”

    1. SHG Post author

      While illegal downloading is a problem (though generally civil, not criminal), as well as one facet of the hackers’ attitude, it’s not at all the problem this post is about.

      That said, the fact that you think the laws are stupid reflects the mistake that others make: you can be prosecuted and convicted for laws you think are stupid. The defendant does not get a free pass because he doesn’t like the law.

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