Hack is Wack

The biggest target was Lulsec hacker John Hammond, who ended up catching 121 months, but now that it’s time to bring Hector Xavier Monsegur’s work for the government to a close, his 5K1.1 letter reveals his “extraordinary cooperation.”

A prominent hacker set to be sentenced in federal court this week for breaking into numerous computer systems worldwide has provided a trove of information to the authorities, allowing them to disrupt at least 300 cyberattacks on targets that included the United States military, Congress, the federal courts, NASA and private companies, according to a newly filed government court document.

The hacker, Hector Xavier Monsegur, also helped the authorities dismantle a particularly aggressive cell of the hacking collective Anonymous, leading to the arrest of eight of its members in Europe and the United States, including Jeremy Hammond, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation said was its top “cybercriminal target,” the document said.

When Hammond left his sentencing courtroom, he held his first in the air and proclaimed;

“Long Live Anonymous!”

“Hurrah for anarchy!”

Some people are cut out for a life of anarchy. Others, not so much. Monsegur may have had the chops to hack, but not the guts to face the weight of the government. So he flipped.

The parallels are beginning to become apparent between the government’s War on Hackers and its long-time War on Drugs.  Hacking came to the attention of Americans in a 1983 movie, War Games, in which a young, technologically skilled kid nearly started World War III by accidentally hacking into Defense Department computers and playing what he thought was a game of thermonuclear war.  At the time, the kid (“David Lightman,” played by Matthew Broderick) was the innocent computer whiz who meant no harm.

There are significant differences between hackers and drug dealers.  The former tend to be politically motivated while the latter are financially motivated.  The former are smart, perhaps even brilliant, while the latter need know little more than metric weight conversion, cutting ratios and how to look nonchalant while carrying a substance of great value.  The former have the education and ability to succeed in a great many endeavors, while the latter usually have few options for great expectations.

And yet, they have become largely interchangeable in the government’s eyes.

For some hackers, the game is the thrill.  It’s their culture, their religion, to beat the firewalls and find the holes.  For others, the game is to help information be free.  There is a strong anarcho-syndicalist trend in the archtype, whether they realize it or not.  There may be financial gain, or at least financial harm to those they deem deserving, but it’s usually secondary to their real purposes. Boys just want to have fun.  For the lulz, even if those who don’t share their sense of humor don’t find it very lulz-worthy.

When the government slams the full weight of its power down on their head, however, they seem shocked.  Drug dealers know that what they are doing is a high-risk venture. They know it’s a crime, and accept the risk of being caught, prosecuted and convicted as a cost of doing business. No, they don’t fully appreciate what that means, but the general concept doesn’t elude them.

Hackers, not so much.  Because they don’t perceive themselves as criminals (maybe outlaws, in the romantic sense), they struggle when the ramifications of the government’s clout becomes clear.  It doesn’t compute.

To drive home the point of how the government sees hacking as the analogue of drug dealing, the new director of the FBI, Jim Comey, made a quasi-funny kinda-joke when he ran up the flag pole a policy change.

But FBI Director James B. Comey said Monday that if the FBI hopes to continue to keep pace with cyber criminals, the organization may have to loosen up its no-tolerance policy for hiring those who like to smoke marijuana.

A lot of the nation’s top computer programmers and hacking gurus are also fond of marijuana.

“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” Mr. Comey said.

If you let that sink in a bit, you realize the implications of this quip.  As much as the FBI has hated “reefer madness” for generations, so much so that it’s expended enormous resources to rid the nation of killer weed, it now hates “cyber criminals” so much more that it’s willing to forsake its pot-hating heritage to embrace hacking gurus, Cheech and Chong,

Dear Hackers. The government really, really hates you guys.  They are prepared to go to great lengths to get you.  Just as they did with drugs.

And if you think this isn’t real, that whining about the hypocrisy of the system, the death of freedom, the evisceration of constitutional rights or the cost of a competent defense is going to produce a lower sentence, you’re going to find yourself spending a lot of lonely nights revisiting your mistaken assumption.  No, it’s not like you killed someone. No, that argument won’t save you. It’s never worked before, and it won’t work now.

As much as hackers are smarter than drug dealers, or at least credit themselves as such, drug dealers know one thing that hackers haven’t yet figured out.  It’s more effective to be prepared and beat the government at its game than to be in denial and lose.

When it comes to binary calculations, hackers win. When it comes to binary thinking about the legal system, drugs dealers are a whole lot smarter. Hackers could learn a thing or two from them.

10 thoughts on “Hack is Wack

  1. nidefatt

    I think you’re onto something here. I think part of the problem is that its hard to understand the motivation for the feds hatred of hackers. There was a video game in the late 90s called Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller which featured Dennis Hopper among other actors looking like polygon demons. Anyway, the plot was that America had gone Fascist, and the government expended its vast resources to go after hackers. The government kept the citizenry a few decades behind itself in terms of tech, and so it was incredibly valuable to go after anyone who could crack through cyber security. The plot is also about the government claiming to have come into contact with Hell and to be able to send people there but the big secret is that Hell is virtual. I don’t know exactly why I bring this up, other than if the feds are planning to create a virtual hell, I’m onto them.

    You know, it was the FBI that charged those Chinese hackers. Maybe it isn’t so much that they hate hackers as they are engaged in international cyber warfare?

  2. bill

    The govt hates Hackers (specific ones) b/c they are the target of a lot of the LULZ. If hacking collectives quit screwing with the govt, I suspect the govt would be pretty much fine pretending it never happened and that there’s nothing they can do about it b/c of jurisdiction, Tor, Wikileaks or something.

    1. SHG Post author

      We may be past that point. Unless a new war comes along, in which case they can refocus their energies on the next evil.

  3. Henry Bowman

    Unfortunately, this article muddies the subject by treating hobbyist hackers and criminal crackers indistinguishably. Crackers — especially those professionals in the employ of foreign governments — are a real threat, and deserve government attention. If our government, tasked with bringing crackers to heel, indicts and convicts hackers instead, it is probably only for the same reason that the ATF, tasked with bringing gun-runners to heel, indicts and convicts gun-shop owners for paperwork deficiencies instead. The job is easier, and honest gun shop owners never shoot back.

    1. SHG Post author

      You make an excellent point, that I have failed to distinguish internal from foreign. I’m addressing internal here, and appreciate your pointing out the distinction I failed to note.

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