Category Archives: Culture

The Rising Trend of Criminalizing Hackers & Tinkerers

Note: This article is also available in Portuguese, translated by Anders Bateva.

There seems to be a rising trend of criminalizing hackers & tinkerers. More and more, people who explore the limits of the equipment, hardware and software they own and use, whether they tinker with it, re-purpose it, or expand its functionalities, are met with unrelenting persecution by authorities. In the last couple of years, the trend seems to be that these things, or things which humans have done for thousands of years, like sharing, expanding and improving upon culture, are persecuted. An example is the recent possibility of making violations of Terms of Service, Terms of Use and other Terms put forward by service providers a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The companies that are now (for the most part) in control of our collective culture are limiting the methods of sharing more and more, often through judicial and/or technical means. The technical means for the most part don’t work, thankfully. DRM is still a big failure and never got off the ground, although the content industry is still trying to cling onto it. The judicial means, however, can be very effective at crushing someone, especially in the litigious United States of America. In the U.S., about 95% of all criminal cases end in a plea bargain, because that’s cheaper than trial by jury. These people are forced by financial pressure to enter a plea bargain, even if they didn’t commit the crimes of which they are accused.

Aaron SwartzAaron Swartz

The late Aaron Swartz was persecuted heavily by the U.S. government for downloading millions of scientific articles from JSTOR at MIT, JSTOR being the closed-source library of scientific articles, access to which is commercially exploited by ITHAKA, the entity that runs it. Aaron believed that scientific research paid for by the public, should be available to the public for free. It’s completely logical that research paid for by the public belongs to the public, and not to some company which basically is saying: “Thank you very much, we’ll have that, now we are going to charge for access to the scientific results, and reap the financial benefits.” It is sad that the world lost a great hacker and tinkerer, committing suicide, only 26 years old, unable to bear the pressure brought down upon him any longer, when in the end, according to his lawyer Elliot Peters, he probably would have won the case due to the fact that the U.S. Secret Service failed to get a search warrant for Swartz’s laptop until 34 days after they seized it.

The corporate world is seizing control of content creation

This trend is seen more and more lately. The companies in control of most of our content production, devices and systems don’t want you to tinker with them, not even if you own them. Apple is closing their systems by soon preventing you from installing your own software on OS X. Software installs will soon only be permitted through the Apple-curated App Store. Already there’s software in OS X, called Gatekeeper that’s meant to prevent you from installing apps that might contain malware. If you read between the lines in that previous link you’ll see that it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to tighten the reins, and make Gatekeeper more oppressive. Google is rapidly closing Android, and moving more and more parts of the once open-source system to its own Google Play Services app. Check the permissions on that app; it’s incredibly scary just how much of the system is now locked up in this closed-source binary blob, and how little the actual android system now handles. Recently, text messaging functionality was moved from the Android OS to the Google Hangouts app, so texting with an Android 4.4 (KitKat)-equipped phone is no longer possible without a Google account and being logged into that. Of course, Google will store all your text messages, for easy access by American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. If you now were to install Android, and remove the Google Play Services app, you might be surprised at how much stuff depends on that app nowadays. When you remove Google Play Services, your phone basically becomes a non-functional plastic brick. These companies fail to see that any invention is made by standing on the shoulders of giants and working upon other people’s work, making it better, tinkering and modifying it, using it for other purposes not envisioned by the original author et cetera. This is what makes culture, this is what makes us. We are fundamentally social creatures, we share. The same implementation of control systems happens with e-books as well. The devices used to read them usually aren’t open, like the Amazon Kindle for example, so that is a problem. We humans have been sharing culture for millions of years and sharing books for thousands of years, basically since writing was invented in Mesopotamia. It is as natural to human development as breathing. We are social creatures, and we thrive on feedback from our peers. But there’s something worse going on in e-book land. In the Netherlands, all e-book purchases now have to be stored in a database called Centraal Boekhuis, which details all buyer information, and this central database will be easily accessible by Stichting BREIN, the country’s main anti-piracy & content industry lobby club. This was ostensibly done to prevent e-book piracy, but I would imagine that this database soon will be of interest to intelligence agencies. Think of it: a centralized database containing almost all books and which people read which books. You can learn a lot about a person just from the books they read. Joseph Stalin and Erich Honecker would be proud. We reached a high water mark of society after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, but it’s sad to see that here in the Western world, we’ve been slipping from that high pillar of decency and humanity ever since. To quote V from V for Vendetta:

“Where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, we now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

The surveillance is now far worse than what George Orwell could have possibly imagined. We need to remind the spooks and control freaks in governments around the world that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not an instruction manual. It was a warning. And we’ve ignored it so far.