Julian Assange

The Government Is Treating Assange Like a Hacker to Punish His Journalism

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is itself prone to abuse by prosecutors. This is another example.

|

Much of the discussion over the recent arrest and indictment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has revolved around whether or not his activities qualified as journalism. This is a key element in the government's vendetta against the transparency activist.

However, the indictment justifying Assange's extradition to the United States is based on alleging hacking. But Assange didn't do much in the way of "hacking" at all. In truth, much of the government's affidavit against Assange describes perfectly legal and legitimate technology-assisted journalism.

By conflating hacking and journalism, prosecutors kill two birds with one stone. They can take down their public enemy number one while setting a precedent that could harm future would-be muckrakers.

In December of 2017, the FBI filed an affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Assange based on an alleged conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). This law, which got kicked into gear after President Reagan was spooked by the hacking movie WarGames, makes it a crime to "knowingly access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access" to obtain information.

As you might expect from a movie-hacker-inspired '80s-era computer law, the CFAA is muddled and vague. What exactly does "without authorization" mean? If a company like AT&T accidentally leaves customer information publicly accessible, and someone stumbles upon that data, does that qualify? Big companies caught with their pants down obviously think so, as do others who ideologically oppose the outcomes of such "hacks."

Prosecutors have taken advantage of this unclear language to throw the book at a wide range of activities that aren't obviously "hacking" or even in violation of the spirit of the law.

A famous and tragic victim of CFAA prosecutorial excess is Aaron Swartz, Reddit co-founder and internet activist, who committed suicide in the face of a possible $1 million fine and lengthy prison sentence. His crime? Violating academic journal terms of service to publish open access scholarly publications.

Assange will now get the Swartz treatment. His enemies are legion; Wikileaks' activities have exposed powerful groups across the world.

You would think the FBI has had enough time to put together an ironclad legal assault. But when you look at the affidavit, the charges the government has whipped up to take down its enfant terrible are actually pretty weak tea.

Here is the sole charge: that in 2010, Julian Assange gave Chelsea Manning (known then as Bradley) suggestions on how to crack a password. That's it. We don't know if they were successful, by the way—not that it matters in the eyes of the CFAA. But it's pretty incredible that for all of Assange's supposed black hattery, the only thing the government could nab him on is a passing conversation on rainbow tables.

It's ridiculous, but the 29 words of Assange's chat to Manning could cost him five years in the slammer. (It's quite possible that the feds will add other charges as well.)

This is crazy world of the CFAA. The affidavit admits that "there is no other evidence as to what Assange did, if anything, with respect to the password." The New Yorker's Raffi Khatchadourian suggested that Assange's offer was merely bluster to make Wikileaks's shoestring five-person operation appear more sophisticated to a nervous source.

No matter. The very fact that password guessing was brought up in the course of hundreds of chats discussing the publication of newsworthy documents is enough under the CFAA. As the affidavit crows, "the recovered chats described above reflect an agreement between Manning and Assange to crack the hash." Gotcha.

It's worth pointing out that none of this is news—these chat logs surfaced back in 2013, and WIRED discussed the allegations in 2011. Nor was this relatively minor infraction worth including in the government's separate case against Manning. This may just be all that the feds could pin on Assange, at least for now.

If that's all that Assange is accused of, why the 40 pages of exhaustive detail in the affidavit? This brings us to one of the more troubling and less discussed elements of the Assange indictment: It demonizes standard journalistic tools like encryption technologies by association.

An analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization spearheading the effort for CFAA reform, provides context. The FBI affidavit darkly describes things like Manning's use of the open source OS Linux. Another report from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press echoes EFF: The chat platform Jabber, identity-concealing encryption, and cloud drop boxes are all lumped into the "manner and means" of the alleged conspiracy. This makes these innocuous and useful technologies appear sinister.

The FBI does not shy away from directly impugning Assange's journalistic interest. For example, the Bureau's press release condemns Assange for "actively encouraging Manning to provide more information." Well, what investigative journalist hasn't? You want to get the full story right.

Some have argued that this is an appropriate use of the CFAA. It's not journalism, it's like helping your source to pick a lock. Well, I would say it's actually more akin to discussing whether and how to access information with an essential source who has provided solid leaks over several months. Anyway, Assange isn't charged with "helping to pick a lock" but rather the more nebulous "agreeing to conspire to maybe help to pick a lock that wasn't actually picked."

But all of that largely misses the point.

As The Intercept's Micah Lee points out, considering "measures to conceal Manning as the source of the disclosure of classified records to Wikileaks" as part of a criminal conspiracy sets a dangerous precedent for all investigative journalists.

A lot of people don't like what Assange did. (It's kind of funny to compare people's opinions on Wikileaks over time.) Or maybe they just don't like the guy himself. Fine.

But it's hard to deny that the federal government is wielding the CFAA as it often does: a catch-all pretext to crack down on troublemakers.

The Reporters Committee notes that this CFAA pseudo-technicality gives the government a way out of potential First Amendment problems involved with prosecuting the actual publication of the leaks.  (This is the justification the Obama Administration gave for failing to prosecute.) They nab their guy without the constitutional fuss. Is such prosecutorial opportunism really something that Assange critics in the media wish to defend? Would their tune change if it was directed at one on their own team?

No one honestly believes that the FBI is going after Assange on a good faith mission to uphold the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. We know it's because Wikileaks exposed government operatives. You may think he's a hero. You may think he's a scoundrel. Either way, we should all be worried about such abuses of "hacking" laws to crush ideological enemies.

Advertisement

NEXT: The Ukrainian President's Theme Song?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If someone leaves their door open, making their possessions publicly accessible, taking them is not stealing

    That seems to be the logic involved hete.

    1. Do us a favor. Read the Pentagon papers case. Then we wont have to call out your ignorance

      1. I am not arguing that it applies to what Assange did. I am arguing that taking something because you can get at it does make it legal.

        1. That’s idiotic. I can legally take someone’s car because hey it was right there on the street and I could get at it!

          1. I am arguing against that, sorry. What I object to is the example in third paragraph.

            1. Assange’s crimes are almost as serious as deceitfully using a distinguished academic department chairman’s name to publish wrongful whistle-blowing in the form of “parody.” Given the damage caused by his “Wikileak” actions (inappropriately called “speech” by certain individuals who promote liberalizing the so-called “First Amendment”), he should be tried and punished to the full extent of the law. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

              https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

    2. It’s the difference between being the messenger or the thief.

      The thief (Manning) was prosecuted. The messenger (Assange) should not be.

      Now, if Assange did assist with the taking, then he crosses from messenger to thief and can be prosecuted.

      1. The argument made was that stealing someones’s documents is a category error. If you can access them by any means you can legally take them.

      2. Let us pretend that Manning had access to a room full of safes. The room has a cctv camera in it. Manning had a key that fit the safes with the stuff that was the least valuable. The stuff that was of higher value had a different key. Manning told Assange what he was doing every step of the way. Assange gives Manning a program that lets him get a blurry picture of the key his boss uses to open the more important safes. Manning sends the picture to Assange asking him to make a key that will open the more important safes and send it to him. Assange responds that he will attempt to do so. In what way is the above not a conspiracy to commit a crime?

        1. “”In what way is the above not a conspiracy to commit a crime?”‘

          I agree it would be due to Assange assisting with the theft.

      3. Actually the thief was prosecuted and then set free. The messenger will suffer a much greater punishment.

  2. So in previous articles, people like myself and Ken looked at the charges, and questioned whether defense of Assange was appropriate. If he was really part of a conspiracy to hack the government, then that is different than just taking information from Manning.

    This article makes me lean towards “This court case is bullshit”. Pointing your contact towards information that allows him to perform hacking is not the same as in depth planning for a hack. And if the tools Assange pointed Manning to were really Rainbow tables, then this really is weak sauce against him.

    As noted in the article, this also sets a very dangerous precedent. Consider how many times in the past you’ve had theoretical discussions with people about how lock picking works, or how to pull off the perfect crime. It is only a small leap for a prosecutor to convince a jury that while you had this conversation, you knew another person was going to commit a crime using these methods, and suddenly you are a target.

    1. Here is the sole charge: that in 2010, Julian Assange gave Chelsea Manning (known then as Bradley) suggestions on how to crack a password.

      Oh, now you’ve gone and done it, Andrea. Mentioning that passwords might be crackable, indeed….

      1. Consider if you had been on some forum like commenting on a reason article, where you talked about Rainbow Tables or SQL Injection to get hashed PWs. If they could show manning was there participating, could you also be prosecuted? Not that they’d probably bother…unless of course, you later got in a tiff with your local senator, or secretary of state….

        1. If you also released information that made Democrats look bad, you’d definitely have something to worry about.

  3. By conflating hacking and journalism, prosecutors kill two birds with one stone. They can take down their public enemy number one while setting a precedent that could will harm future would-be muckrakers.

    FTFY

  4. Assange locked himself in a cage for what 8 years(?) to avoid an arguably weak prosecution with a max 5 year sentence. Interesting.

    1. A large part of it was him escaping rape charges from two Swedish women. Who knows if he did it. The charges have gone away.

      1. To be fair, the rape charges appeared to be post hoc regrets, not coerced sex.

        1. Probably explains why the charges went away.

        2. In the USA, that doesn’t matter.

  5. OT: Twitter just removed 5000 bots that were created by the govt of Saudi Arabia to undermine the Russia investigation. This scheming for Trump by these dictators. God damn.

    1. Can you source that?

      I couldn’t find it by searching. The only thing I found about Saudis, twitter, and bots was from 2018 regarding Trump’s handling of Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi case.

      1. Sources? From an acknowledged off topic post?
        You’re not new here are you? (I loose track of all the socks in the drawer)

        1. “”Sources? From an acknowledged off topic post?””

          Well considering OP is good at making shit up, requesting a source of an OP post is valid. Off topic or not.

    2. No comment on Ukraine opening an investigation into aiding Hillary?

    3. The reflexive conservativism that underscores the madness of Ordinary Person is the same stupidity that justifies the jailing of Assange. If Russia Fever Dreams hadn’t been breathlessly accepted as faith by a corporate press that is better described as propagandists at this point, there probably would have been a bigger outcry over Assange’s arrest. And now we are suppose to believe the same propagandists about some Twitter bots?

    4. Ordinary Person
      April.23.2019 at 9:26 am
      “This scheming for Trump by these dictators. God damn.”

      Do you ever get tired of proving what an ignoramus you are?

  6. “”If that’s all that Assange is accused of, why the 40 pages of exhaustive detail in the affidavit?”‘

    Ever hear of the Mueller report?

  7. When Assange, Snowden and Manning start publishing secrets from states like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea I will believe that they are only interested in transparency. But I’m pretty sure they are too afraid of facing the consequences of a Putin/MBS style hit squad.

    1. SPOILER: Wikileaks has published state secrets about Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia. Nice talking point that makes no sense, though

  8. By this argument that if you can obtain someone’s information then it is legal to obtain it does not bode well for being secure in one’s personal effects.

    It also suggests that the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC was not a crime.

    1. So dumb you said it twice.

      1. How am I misunderstanding the legal principle being asserted?

        1. You’re not. Some people just want to lick boots

          1. Submitting to the notion that I have no legal recourse if somebody steals my data is “licking boots”? Really?

            1. I was literally agreeing with you

              *smh*

  9. […] Reason: The government is treating Julian Assange like a hacker to punish his journalism […]

  10. Julian Assange is no journalist. His conduct did not constitute journalism. Malcontents at the fringes of American society disagree (inconsequentially, as is customary).

    1. You really are worthless

    2. Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland is no reverend.

      He’s a snake handler and a malcontent on the fringes of American society.

  11. Aaron Schwartz connected a computer to the MIT network in a server room and downloaded academic journal articles using a guest account issued to him by MIT. That’s a little more than violating a TOS.

    1. What is a little lie of omission in an advocate piece?

  12. When the government gets the power to define “journalism,” well, we know where that can lead.

  13. […] In December of 2017, the FBI filed an affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Assange based on an alleged conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(CFAA). This law, which got kicked into gear after President Reagan was spooked by the hacking movie WarGames, makes it a crime to “knowingly access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access” to obtain information.-Reason […]

  14. […] In December of 2017, the FBI filed an affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Assange based on an alleged conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(CFAA). This law, which got kicked into gear after President Reagan was spooked by the hacking movie WarGames, makes it a crime to “knowingly access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access” to obtain information.-Reason […]

  15. […] In December of 2017, the FBI filed an affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Assange based on an alleged conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(CFAA). This law, which got kicked into gear after President Reagan was spooked by the hacking movie WarGames, makes it a crime to “knowingly access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access” to obtain information.-Reason […]

  16. […] In December of 2017, the FBI filed an affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Assange based on an alleged conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(CFAA). This law, which got kicked into gear after President Reagan was spooked by the hacking movie WarGames, makes it a crime to “knowingly access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access” to obtain information.-Reason […]

  17. […] In December of 2017, the FBI filed an affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Assange based on an alleged conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(CFAA). This law, which got kicked into gear after President Reagan was spooked by the hacking movie WarGames, makes it a crime to “knowingly access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access” to obtain information.-Reason […]

  18. I think these type of movies are easily available on Showbox App which has gone too popular. Though it’s not legit the content is quite alluring. Hope production houses create a legal alternative of this app.

  19. […] had already been charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a prosecution which was already troubling, as it was based entirely on giving Manning a suggestion on how to crack a password. Assange […]

  20. […] had already been charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a prosecution which was already troubling, as it was based entirely on giving Manning a suggestion on how to crack a password. Assange […]

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.