August 2, 2005 | By Annalee Newitz

EFF15: How I Became a Geek Crusader

I hope you're not reading this blog entry using somebody's open wireless network. It could get you arrested for trespassing. Earlier this month, a Florida man was arrested for sitting outside somebody's house in his car and using their open wifi network. What the hell? The network was open, people. But as Engadget reports, another guy was arrested for the same thing in the UK, and was found guilty last week of "dishonestly obtaining an electronic communications service." Law enforcement in both instances claimed that the problem with accessing an open wifi network is that it allows people to commit crimes anonymously. And yet we have only a very few examples of such crimes, compared to the millions of examples of happy people using open networks without doing anything illegal.

All this BS about arresting people for sucking free bits out of the air with their antennae makes me think back to a time, many years ago, when I first realized the social injustices suffered by geeks didn't originate entirely from groups of jocks and generic popular kids in the halls at my high school.

(Read on after the jump.)

When I was a teenager, many of my friends met on a local BBS where we could chat and exchange cracked software ("cracked" meant the copy protection had been stripped away by a friendly geek who thus enabled all the poor teenagers of Orange County to have amusing games and nifty applications). While we infringed copyrights blithely, without any opinions about the justice of the intellectual property system, we took hacking very seriously. It was an art, and a way of being conscientiously disobedient. Nobody who broke into systems ever defaced them. The idea was to go in, look around, and leave no trace.

Only a few of us were hardcore hackers, people who had seen War Games and taken it to heart. But one pretty day in spring, a few people in my extended group of online acquaintences were arrested and had their computers confiscated by the FBI. These guys weren't criminals, and they weren't trying to steal military secrets. They were just exploring the nascent Internet, peeking into any computer network they could find to learn about it. I don't want to say that they were as innocent as the guys I described earlier who were arrested for accessing open wifi networks. My online pals knew they were breaking into computers. Nevertheless, to my teenaged sensibilities, they were heroic explorers being punished for daring to ask questions and go where the adults didn't want them to. How could the quest for knowledge be so violently censured?

This question has continued to haunt me 20 years later. As the Internet has grown into a fully adult communications medium, packed with everything from motion pictures to poetry, our ability to access it and publish to it unmolested is more critical than ever. But government and private industry are working to erode the distinction between harmless exploration and crime. Most people's activities involving high technology could probably be deemed unlawful in the right court, under the right circumstances. They rip CDs, access the Internet from open wifi networks, download "Doctor Who" from BitTorrent, play DVDs using "unauthorized" media players on their computers, run port scanners on random computers they encounter on the Internet, republish sexual images online, and own modded Xboxes. I'll leave it to you to dig up all the laws that could make any one of these activities unlawful -- suffice it to say that they exist, and they're being used right now to punish people who dare to use their technology in ways that defy convention.

When I fight these laws, I am honoring those brave teenage geeks who were arrested in my neighborhood two decades ago. I'm trying to create a world where fewer explorers will be punished for what they do, and for teaching others how to understand technology better.

July marks the 15th anniversary of one of my beloved workplaces, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a high tech civil liberties group in San Francisco that fights to keep freedom of expression and privacy alive on the Internet. This blog post honors EFF on its birthday. May its team of attorneys, geeks, and activists make the future better than my past.


Deeplinks Topics

Stay in Touch

NSA Spying

EFF is leading the fight against the NSA's illegal mass surveillance program. Learn more about what the program is, how it works, and what you can do.

Follow EFF

Perú: Hasta el Cardenal Juan Luis Cipriani critica la vigilancia descontrolada. https://eff.org/r.c2sx #leystalker

Aug 1 @ 9:57am

Brasil: Proposta da lei de Proteção de Dados Pessoais abre portas para intromissão do Estado. https://eff.org/r.ml6l

Aug 1 @ 8:40am

Breaking: No TPP deal reached in Hawaii, announce trade ministers.

Jul 31 @ 8:06pm
JavaScript license information