In a recent post, I wrote about how I felt I had betrayed myself. When I started blogging, I had the intention of being a source of information not available through commercial mass media. I wanted to spark people’s interest and have them question the things around them. Ultimately, I let fear override that intention and I was a victim of self-censorship. You can read about it by clicking here.
The first time I heard about self-censorship was in the book Cypherpunks, written by Julian Assange. In the book, they discuss things that are reminiscent of the sort of things written about in George Orwell’s book “1984.” They discuss the concepts of censorship and surveillance. One form of censorship, mentioned in Cypherpunks, is how the government regularly erases parts of history. The government does this by removing articles they don’t agree with. Or, at times, the government would alter articles if they contained anything in them that would scar the image of a political public figure. The book provides references and, at times, links to the documents that the government had removed.
That’s not the only form of censorship the Cypherpunks showed concerned about. They suggested, that with all the surveillance the NSA and other government agencies are doing, people have grown to become fearful. Apparently, people hold back from openly speaking out against these government agencies based on the fear of retaliation. This is a form of self-censorship. These government agencies have shown what can happen to someone who causes too much trouble, by the many accounts of people they have indicted with erroneous charges. Therefore, people will hold back and self-censor themselves.
I, myself, can admit I’ve self-censored myself due to the fear of retaliation and with the sentencing of the journalist, Barrett Brown, self-censorship has become even more evident. Since Brown’s indictment, there have been other journalist who have pulled away from their investigative reporting, simply because they fear becoming targeted. One journalist even published an article stating, “We Should All Step Back from Security Journalism. I’ll Go First.”
Quinn Norton, who ironically is the ex-girlfriend of Aaron Swartz, an activist I wrote about in “Are You At Risk?” writes in part:
Part of Barrett Brown’s 63 month sentence, issued yesterday, is a 12 month sentence for a count of Accessory After the Fact, of the crime of hacking Stratfor. This sentence was enhanced by Brown’s posting a link in chat and possessing credit card data. This, and a broad pattern of misunderstanding and criminalizing normal behavior online, has lead me to feel that the situation for journalists and security researchers is murky and dangerous.
I am stepping back from reporting on hacking/data breach stories, and restricting my assistance to other journalists to advice. (But please, journalists, absolutely feel free to ask me for advice!) I can’t look at the specific data another journalist has, and I can’t pass it along to a security expert, without feeling like there’s risk to the journalists I work with, the security experts, and myself.
I know some of my activist hacker contacts will find this cowardly of me. Many of them risk much more than this in the course of their lives, but I have two replies to this. One is that I have a family to care for including a child, and I can’t ask them to enter this murky legal territory. The other is that my causes are often not the same as the causes I write about, and I feel I best serve my causes by stepping back and highlighting this problem of law to the public.
Read her whole article on Medium.
The problem of law, Quinn Norton refers to, is The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). As I mentioned in “Are You At Risk?”, this law is too broad and too vague. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a law that prohibits intentionally accessing a computer, ‘without authorization’ (or exceeding authorized access), and obtaining information from a ‘protected computer.’
The first problem in interpreting this law is the actual definition of a protected computer. A ‘protected computer’, is supposedly, a computer used by a financial institution, or the U.S. Government. More importantly, a computer affecting interstate commerce or communication could be considered a protected computer. Since, a protected computer is a computer affecting interstate communication, anyone using a personal computer or mobile device, connected to the internet, can been subjected to prosecution under the CFAA.
Secondly, Congress did not define the phrase ‘without authorization,’ perhaps assuming that the words speak for themselves. This vagueness has led to many different interpretations on a court to court basis. Prosecutors have taken advantage of this confusion and have charged people based on this law. However, in reality, it was most likely based on other behavior the prosecutors simply did not like.
Some of the things most of us do, on a regular basis, could potentially be considered a violation of the CFAA.
Here are some examples:
Signing up for a service, like Facebook, and not using your legal name.
Hacking or jailbreaking a device.
Using your personal email account from your employers computer.
Sharing a link to a website.
Not only hacking a computer, but simply talking about hacking.
Most of us would never have to worry about these. However, if a prosecutor suddenly gets an itch up their butt and has it in for you, there are many loopholes in the CFAA they can use to make your life a living hell.
As far as I’m concerned, I cannot live my life worrying about what some modern-day ‘big brother’ might do. If I know something, that others might not know, it is my obligation to share that information. It’s like being at a party, where I know the food will cause food poisoning, yet I don’t tell anyone because I don’t want to upset the cook. That’s just morally unjust, and I will not be a part of it. I refuse to let any propaganda or fear-mongering to provoke me into self-censorship.