On March 6, 2012 FBI agents arrested five hackers alleged to be active in groups related to Anonymous. They are accused of breaking into a number of corporate and government websites and networks and sharing the information online.
I could be described as a friend to Chicago-based hacker Jeremy Hammond. We met doing student anti-war organizing in 2004, and I once drove to Toledo, Ohio to bail Hammond and a number of other activists out of jail. They had traveled to Ohio to protest against a neo-Nazi group and been arrested under a draconian judicial decree that outlawed any gathering of 3 or more people without a permit.
Hammond, 27, has been charged with one count of computer hacking conspiracy, one count of computer hacking and one count of conspiracy to commit access device fraud. Each charge carries a maximum ten-year prison sentence. The Anon/LulzSec leader-turned-FBI-informant, a man who went by the alias “Sabu,” helped the FBI track and identify Hammond and other hacktivists.
Prior to his arrest this week, Hammond spent two years in prison for hacking into the website of the conservative pro-war group ‘Protest Warrior.’ That a fellow hacker was also involved in his previous arrest also has led to a fair amount of derision.
“Like a lot of hackers, [Hammond] combines brains, idealism, and stupidity in equal measures,” writes Whet Moser in a Chicago magazine profile.
But Hammond was in many ways a person well ahead of his time. Groups like Anonymous were practically based on the work he did and the philosophy of ‘hacktivism’ that he touted. Hammond ran the hacker training website Hack This Site and was a key person in Hack This Zine. Inspired by groups like the Electro-hippies who take credit for crashing the World Trade Organization’s website during the 1999 protests, Hammond played an important role in promoting the use of hacking for Anarchist causes.
In a video from the Hacker conference Def-Con in 2004, Hammond describes his philosophy of “electronic civil disobedience” and challenges the authorities’ designation of hacking as cyber-terrorism: “Terrorism seeks to put fear into the population and hacktivism would rather unite people, bring them together and empower people, to give them the ability, that together we can make a difference, that we can put people on top of unjust corporations and governments.”
Hammond is accused of hacking into Strategic Forecasting, Inc. or Stratfor. Stratfor is known as a for-profit corporate version of the CIA. The files, consisting of e-mails and internal documents was posted on WikiLeaks.
In describing the Stratfor documents, the Guardian has described a number of ethical and possible legal violations the company had made. The memo’s show that Stratfor had been “seeking to profit by disrupting journalists and activist groups,” including groups like the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which sought to protest DOW Chemical for not cleaning up the toxic waste in Bhopal as a result of the Union Carbide gas explosion in 1984.
The Guardian also points out that Stratfor’s process of buying information from government and corporate insiders and then seeking to profit from that information could attract unwanted attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission:
By its very nature, of course, such information is secret and often protected by government order. Nothing short of a major congressional investigation will be able to drill down into this intelligence-industrial cartel to assess not just the quality of the information and the way it was obtained, but whether or not any of it serves the public interest—or the very opposite. That is, unless Anonymous or WikiLeaks gets there and does the work first.
In many ways, whoever hacked Stratfor was living up the Hacker Credo that “Information Wants to be Free.” It has led to a number of questions about the operations of a company that might put profit over ethics and legality.
Hammond is also charged with charging the credit cards of Stratfor’s clients to various progressive groups. This has led some to call him a digital Robin Hood. While some activists may cheer releasing corporate information, many balk at using those corporate clients credit cards without authorization.
However. the history of civil disobedience has shown that financial tolls on powerful corporations and governments are often the most effective form of protest. No one has accused Hammond of using the money for himself. A “freegan” who protests the wastefulness of the food industry by dumpster diving and eating food that has been thrown away, he could have bought much nicer things for himself. Although, if he had used the money on himself, he might have been able to evade capture by the authorities by moving out of the country.
If Hammond did hack Stratfor, it is entirely possible that he was a victim of entrapment. A target by the FBI because of his politics and previous arrests, he may have been persuaded and pressured into hacking a company that he might not have known of before. Considering the possibility of corruption in Stratfor, Hammonds arrest should only fuel the distrust of the government from many in the Anonymous and Occupy movements.