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Protecting Tech Thought Leaders: Faith, Hope, and Lauri Love

Written by Vera Wilde

True to his name, Lauri Love went AWOL (absent without leave) from the Finnish Army to care for a sick friend. Before formalizing his conscientious objector status in 2004, Love noticed what felt right about being a friend and caretaker — while also realizing what felt wrong, for him, about being a soldier. The soft-spoken son of a Baptist preacher and a Finnish teacher has since been intermittently plagued by a range of health problems of his own. Love’s struggles echo Aaron Swartz’s — and he is accused of participating in Anonymous’s digital political protest and mourning of Swartz’s death.

Programmer, democracy activist, Harvard Fellow, and tech thought leader, Swartz committed suicide in 2006 as a result of over-zealous American prosecution under the abuse-prone Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Digital natives and activists like Swartz took their grief to the streets, and to the Internet. Anonymous and other digital activists launched campaigns to honor Swartz’s vision of open government and public access to publicly funded scientific and academic data. Marking the anniversary of Swartz’s death, protesters hacked and defaced U.S. governmental websites including those of the Army, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Federal Reserve, and Environmental Protection Agency.

Love is accused of participating in these digital protest hacks. Like civil disobedience expert Keith Downy of the PayPal14, Love is being zealously prosecuted after organizing with Occupy protesters in 2011. And like in the PayPal14’s case, the allegations against Love initially stem from Anonymous-associated digital protest of perceived governmental repression of freedom of speech.

Love is fighting extradition to the U.S. — a fight that constrains him from visiting friends on the Continent, focusing on his studies, and taking the best care possible of his own health. “I will never go to America except in a bodybag,” Love says. His prosecution has failed to deter the type of attack with which he’s charged. Anniversary hacks recognizing Swartz’s death have continued.

High rates of sexual assault in U.S. prisons, endemic solitary confinement practices that Amnesty International classifies as torture — and that sometimes specifically target depressed prisoners, and mass violations of lawyer-client privilege characterize American prisons. American courts don’t appear to promise due process for Love, either.

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Due process violations in cases of alleged “high-tech terrorists” abound: WikiLeaks remains subject to unlawful financial blockade after publishing the biggest leaks in history, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2013, the FBI has systematically targeted Anonymous supporters of WikiLeaks with surveillance and armed raids, and Anonymous-associated journalist Barrett Brown sits in federal prison for trash-talking one of his surveillers and posting a link to hacked documents from security firm HBGary including those showing plans to undermine WikiLeaks’ and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s credibility with disinformation campaigns. Journalist Brown snapped and threatened to “look into” one of his FBI agents’ kids after the government came after his mother, Karen Lancaster McCutchin. US Magistrate Judge Paul Stickney sentenced McCutchin to six months’ probation and a $1,000 fine for helping Brown hide laptops in her home during an FBI raid. It’s hard to imagine the social utility of penalizing McCutchin; does the government wager criminalizing maternal sympathy will defeat international terrorism?

Mothers will protect their young whether governments protect the freedoms of press and association Anonymous advances, or not. And lucky for Love, hacker moms in the UK have a better track record of winning that game. In 2012, Janis Sharp, mother of British hacker Gary McKinnon, celebrated UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s decision against extraditing McKinnon to the U.S. May said McKinnon’s extradition would breach his human rights due to his prohibitively high odds of pre-trial suicide, stemming from his Asperger’s syndrome and depression. In 2013, UK hacker mom Julia O’Dwyer helped her son Richard successfully avoid U.S. extradition and prosecution through a deferred prosecution agreement and a 20,000 pound fine. Sharp and O’Dwyer have joined forces now in support of Love’s fight against U.S. extradition, saying the feds are targeting “young British geeks.”

Their stance reflects a growing disconnect between the U.S. Justice Department’s understanding of hacktivism as a security threat on par with violent extremism, and the popular understanding of the term as the new sit-in. Hackerspaces — spaces where hackers congregate in relatively organized groups — often overlap with makerspaces. Their members often self-identify as hackers based on their love of creative problem-solving in art, politics, science, technology, and trade. Just as most criminals aren’t hackers, most hackers aren’t criminals. And their moms would really appreciate it if the feds could keep them straight.

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But the U.S. Government, like the Chinese and many Arab governments, appears committed to harsh suppression of democratic organizers using the Internet to spark civic protest. Hate speech is fine, but Tweet about camping in a park and you might be the subject of a coordinated federal crackdown on grassroots organizing. Transparency activists who target Western governments through direct, safely anonymized action — circumventing the resource drain of the broken U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) system and the increasing dangers of illegal retaliation against whistleblowers — threaten established interests.

Thus Anonymous’s potential as a platform for direct collective action led to a series of domestic American counter-intelligence responses. One ongoing operation, reminiscent of that proposed by HBGary, seeks to sow mistrust within and between Anonymous and WikiLeaks — following similar such efforts to break Anonymous associates’ trust in each other and support of WikiLeaks in response to the PayPal14’s Operation Payback. Another seeks to undermine the credibility of Anonymous-associated releases through compromised versions of anticipated Anonymous releases — another disinformation tactic prefigured by the HBGary release and numerous counterintelligence handbooks.

Attacks like this fail to recognize that, like democracy itself, the Anonymous platform is vulnerable by design. Anonymous is not a group, in the sense that we are all Anonymous. Anyone can participate in discussion and action on the platforms associated with the group. It’s a platform, not a group or brand. And this distinction is about more than anonymity or anarchism. It’s about the essence of politics itself.

The new wave of digital hacktivism depends, like all the most successful democratic peace movements, on relationships of trust — in tandem with verifiable information. That’s one reason why governmental surveillance, psychological operationsentrapmenttargeted prosecution, and media operations against lawful political organizers at home and abroad is supposed to be illegal in liberal democracies. It’s also why anonymity as a digital protest platform is crucial in America today: activists, dissidents, researchers, and journalists act under conditions in which protecting oneself from harsh, judicial and extrajudicial political reprisals may be essential in order to keep acting.

Liberal democratic experiments like the U.S. Government have always been aspirational — based in theory on shared faith in core values, hope that we can adhere better to them together, and love for this vision of a better collective future. Hackers like those protesting Swartz’s death can help us actualize our national dreams. Or they can be crushed by the same, imperfect system they’re trying to help — if we let them.

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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Protecting Tech Thought Leaders: Faith, Hope, and Lauri Love

by Vera Wilde
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