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When is hacking OK?

When it is a demonstration of peaceful civil disobedience or it serves a vital purpose in strengthening flawed security systems. 01/10/22 ReleVents hed: When is hacking OK? dek: When it is a demonstration of peaceful civil disobedience or it serves a vital purpose in strengthening flawed security systems. by James Mathewson

As with any new medium, it will take a long time before the Internet matures. Not only is the technology relatively young, but the rules and mores surrounding the use of the medium are in their infancy. In many cases, there is no consensus about those rules, and healthy debates rage about how people should conduct themselves on the Net. The two biggest areas of legal anarchy right now surround intellectual property and security. Netizens tend to see free content as their inalienable right, while those who profit from content see the new medium as a way to extend their control beyond what we have in other media. Many hackers liken their role to Robyn Hood, testing security systems and getting the attention of the community in order to help those they hack defend against malicious crackers. Where to draw the line between white hats and black hats is a matter of intense debate, even in the hacking community.

These two chaotic forces come together into one whirlwind in cases where software companies design encryption schemes to protect intellectual property. Two high-profile cases this year have intensified the debate. When Dimitry Sklyarov was arrested for cracking Adobe’s code for its e-book reader software I was outraged. He was jailed for doing research showing that Adobe needed to do more work if it was to protect its e-books from piracy. His case is similar to Professor Edward Felten’s. In both cases, I have come down on the side of the hacker, who is doing honorable research to enhance the security of software systems. In both cases, I attacked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as an attempt to turn libertarian chaos into totalitarian rule.

So it will come as no surprise that I will defend the anonymous hacker who cracked Microsoft’s digital-rights management technology. The technology would change the rules for digital audio, forcing those who purchase music to repurchase it after a specified time and never to copy it, even for themselves. Demonstrating the futility of such a technology is a worthy cause for the sake of fair use, the part of copyright law that allows us to use copyrighted works on a limited basis. And, as it is an act of peaceful civil disobedience against the DMCA–a law that would subjugate consumers and trample on the First Amendment–it is not only justified, it is honorable. Unlike previous cases in which the DMCA was used as a gavel on the heads of fair use and our ability to publish our research, I don’t expect this case to end in prosecution. The hacker, who goes by the name Beale Screamer, appears to have the wherewithal to remain anonymous until our legal system straightens this mess out. As I have written elsewhere, it is only a matter of time before someone takes the DMCA up the ladder to the Supreme Court, where it should be found unconstitutional. Perhaps then Beale Screamer can come out into the light of day and be recognized for his heroic civil disobedience.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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