The Hidden Threat To Free Speech in the State of the Union Address

President Obama at his 2015 State of the Union speech. Pool photo.

President Obama at his 2015 State of the Union speech. Pool photo.

President Obama proposed new laws to protect Americans and “especially our kids” from hackers during his State of the Union address. Swaddled in that almost tender-sounding language, though, was a plan that would strengthen the government’s ability to go after journalists like Barrett Brown.

In fact, the new cybersecurity legislation would further criminalize the kind of activity for which Brown is due to be sentenced in Dallas federal court on Jan. 22. Judge Sam A. Lindsay will decide whether to let Brown, 33, off with time served for the more than two years he’s already spent behind bars, or imprison him for a maximum of eight-and-a-half years. Brown struck a deal to plead guilty to, among other charges, a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) felony.

That particular element of the case against Brown demonstrated how he, as a journalist, worked with hackers to expose corporate behavior. The CFAA violation involved his efforts to shield one of his sources, Anonymous hacktivist Jeremy Hammond, from prosecution. Hammond, a self-described anarchist based in Chicago, broke into the computer systems of the private intelligence firm Stratfor hoping to expose wrongdoing and corporate malfeasance.

Brown’s prosecution fits a pattern that has seen the U.S. government treat online journalists, crusading bloggers and idealistic hacktivists as enemies more than new-style investigative reporters. Already, his sentence stands to chill those who would emulate him in conducting real-time, public research into leaked data troves. At the last hearing in Brown’s case, in December, journalist Quinn Norton testified that his prosecution was “absolutely chilling” to 21st Century journalism.

Easier Prosecutions

With President Obama’s legislation, it will become easier for prosecutors to pursue such people. The proposals would, among other things, broaden the meaning of “unauthorized access” such that the Department of Justice could more easily turn the sharing of hyperlinks into illegal “trafficking” as they see fit. Prosecutors accused Brown of that but dropped nearly that entire indictment amid sharp criticism that they were bending the law and attacking free speech.

Brown’s guilty plea allowed him to escape an indictment that construed the sharing of a hyperlink as identity theft. The opening for prosecutors was that the file was said to contain canceled credit card data and user password material hacked out of Stratfor’s servers.

One crucial difference was that Brown had no plans to profit from the sharing of the link, precisely the kind of criminal fraud the law was drafted to stop. Instead, he thought the information might aid his virtual research syndicate ProjectPM, which was investigating shadowy cybersecurity contractors that work for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Indeed, he publicly criticized hackers who spilled the personal data of innocent bystanders.

That difference won’t matter under the new proposals. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which Brown will be sentenced, would be amended to define unauthorized access as something done “for a purpose that the accesser knows is not authorized by the computer owner,” a practically limitless definition. The law will also make hacking that’s now a misdemeanor a felony.

Cybercosa Nostra?

The proposed legislation will also give federal prosecutors authority to use the most powerful weapon in their arsenal against hackers: The Racketeer and Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, known commonly as RICO. The government would then have the discretion to pursue hackers and hacktivists alike with the same tools used to dismantle the mafia and drug cartels.

The government already seems to consider people like Brown a threat. Consider the effort they have poured into his case alone: the prosecution tried to take away funds donated for his defense, gagged him from speaking out about his case, fished for the names of ProjectPM members, pursued a case against his mother, and argued that he and Anonymous “secretly plotted the overthrow of the government.”

In other words, prosecutions like that pursued against Barrett Brown, may well become more common. They will certainly be easier to bring forward. And the government will have even more authority to rein in alliances between journalists and hacktivists, and other previously unheard voices exposing how governments and corporations work together in the dark corners of cyberspace.

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17 responses to “The Hidden Threat To Free Speech in the State of the Union Address”

  1. AeliusBlythe says:

    Barrett Brown’s case should destroy any notion that further CFAA/CFAA-like legislation will only be used responsibly. Of course Obama phrases it as “protecting our kids,” but that’s bordering on malicious falsehood. Who is actually protected when journalists and researchers are locked up?

  2. King David says:

    Thank you again WhoWhatWhy for bringing this important story to the rest of us. It seems the government’s gagg orders have had the chilling effect they were intended to have as this story has been mostly burried.

  3. whodowetrust says:

    Hitler said that the people who accept just about any law, as long as it was “for the children”.
    Much of what he did became legal, just not moral.

  4. ray jones says:

    its time people we dont have much left…….are we goingto tell our grandchildren we were to busy looking out for number one when there freedoms were ilegaly stripped from them by unjust unconstitional laws…….but dont you fret little one granpa and granma didnt get inconveinanced fighting for your freedom……we sat on hands and bit our tounges and let the government do what ever it wanted to….its your problem now …oh dont get mad and say anything they might throw you in jail,just go play and act happy

  5. Joseph says:

    To gag someone from speaking the truth is against “God’s laws”…Do not muzzle the ox that treads the corn…..so, do we follow God’s laws or do we bow before ‘man’…..

    • punkyboy says:

      Holy crap – where did all these christers come from with their god’s laws – go back to your holes and take your gawd with you.

  6. Arizona says:

    THE ONE RAY of sunshine in this case is NONE OF THE GOVERNMENT traitors will be escaping the JUDGEMENT OF GOD,he plans to send every government employee to hell,and thats right where they all belong,SO to all you government traitors,kiss your ass goodby……………..

    • Gone4ever says:

      YEP! You’ll be waiting for your god to do what you say right up to the day you draw your last breath in this life.
      Remember, all religions teach there is only one god, so they must be praying to the same god your praying to.

  7. The beast 042-69-4425 = 6-6-6 says:

    We must hide illegal, unconstitutional, government wrongs, and corruption at any cost!!!!!!!!!

  8. dux says:

    Persecution is coming psalms 103 The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. we must speak against evil no matter what prison sentences fear God and God alone

    • omar cluck says:

      I’m with you as far as speaking against evil, but I prefer to worship Santa Claus because he brings me presents.

  9. Gone4ever says:

    Government, the industrial and military complexes will no be satisfied until the First Amendment of our constitution has been completely suppressed. They want a society that is ruled the same as other socialistic country’s style of their interpretation of the meaning of democracy.

    • punkyboy says:

      You are on the right track here, but it’s not socialism we need to fear, it’s totalitarianism – and we are well on our way to that end. If you or anyone thinks we in America are living in a “democracy,” you need to open your eyes and take a good look around. Maybe rereading the article you are commenting on would be a start.

    • Gone4ever says:

      You’re right punkyboy thank you for the correction.

  10. therealamericro says:

    It is interesting how Brown, and not the FBI agents and other respective agencies’ agents that took part in the online false flag, I mean staged hack (after action report seen here: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/) to take down General Petreus – through a crafty online false flag operation to also cause fear and division within Anonymous with their turning of Sabu, entrap Hammond and make him into the most “dangerous hacker in the world” by watching him carry out their orders to Sabu, frame Brown for silencing, and feed Wikileaks malware and exploits via emails from the *FBI’s own server* – is being charged as an accessory after-the fact.

    Not to mention that the FBI and almost certainly other agencies were accessories before and during the hack according to main stream media reports, including the Daily Dot and whowhatwhy.org, and the highly redacted court transcripts from the secretive proceedings themselves.

    Through Wikileaks publishing the emails, a media parallel construction case was made to discredit Petreus, just as Computer Fraud and Abuse Act parallel construction was created for Hammond and Brown via the government’s absolute command and control over Sabu, and his issuing target lists, including Stratfor, on behalf of the government, and the government watching and materially assisting those targets hacking.

    This hack has the government’s hands all over it (as does the Syria government hack, which was carried out while Sabu was working the 2,000+ target list, Syria hack of course to mobilize public opinion for military intervention).

    The government provided the server on which *some* of the company emails were placed on, namely the emails the government and some company executives had no problem going to Wikileaks for counter-intelligence purposes (http://www.activistpost.com/2012/03/anonymous-hackedwikileaks-released.html).

    While emails the government and certain executives had a problem with the world seeing went to a other server(s) and miraculously did not make it to Wikileaks on a silver platter.

    One major question is why people still believe the “incompetence theory” regarding both the government and some executives when all they had to do was pull the plug at any point before or during the hack, when it was agreed within AntiSec that no money would be exchanged for anything AntiSec hacked long before the FBI server to Wikileaks email transfer so the entrapment of Assange was never an option, when it is clear that the class action settlement was made in bad faith as it did not disclose the other server(s) (you guys may want to FOIA this fact – puts a whole new light on the false flag, I mean “hack”), and the Verizon report being a unicorn show as the FBI could have provided all of the information regarding the hack and all failures, for free, being that they watched the hack take place real-time. That the Verizon report was “leaked” seems to make it almost without question a government plant to perpetuate the “incompetence theory” and the fake narrative Sabu (as his plea and freedom hinges on the perpetuation of the “incompetence theory”), the government, and Hammond and Brown’s prosecutors’ carefully crafted and continued, and continue, to perpetuate to deceive the public regarding their monstrous abuse of surveillance powers, their violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, their violation of the Smith Mundt Act of 1947 by feeding lies to the public from December 24, 2011 through to today, , namely the violation of the Smith Mundt Act of 1947, United States Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 13, Sections 241 & 242 (http://www.lneilsmith.org/18usc.html) for over 800,000 US citizens,
    bulk violation of the 4th Amendment for over 800,000 citizens, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1030 (a)5 (A), 1030 (c) 4 (B) (i), and C 4 (A) (i) (I), the entrapment of Hammond, and his and Brown’s malicious prosecution and false imprisonment – because the government doesn’t like their opinions.

    An important question to ask is what the State Department was doing at the company and talking about with certain executives in the summer of 2011 “coincidentally” just after Sabu became LulzSec and AntiSec’s (http://www.scribd.com/doc/85351496/Timeline-of-ANTISEC-as-Created-and-Operated-Under-FBI-Supervision) *handler*? Also an interesting FOIA request, and picking up where Michael Hastings left off as he was investigating the government’s Stalinist show trial of Brown and its background at the time of his murder.

    I refer you to Sabu’s chat with m45t3rs4d0w8: http://cryptome.org/2014/05/sabu-m45t3rs4d0w8-2012-0330-0524.pdf

    (5:04:25 AM) Sabu: Man I tell you. When I finally get a chance to speak a lot of truth
    is going to blow peoples minds

    (5:23:29 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: other issue is how did the FBI let you do the things you did

    (5:23:45 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: that is, that is “claimed” you did :P

    (5:23:56 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: while you were “working” for them

    (5:24:25 AM) Sabu: Mhm

    (5:26:02 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: the legal documents

    (5:26:11 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: they dont have dated signatures

    (5:26:23 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: or a witness to the signing /dated signature

    (5:26:34 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: also yours are different from some of the others

    (5:26:49 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: from same area/office

    (5:27:00 AM) m45t3rs4d0w8: makes me think they are fake

    (5:27:17 AM) Sabu: Good things to question. Sadly no one is questioning like you are

    (8:40:40 AM) Sabu: and they’re doing shit with little court restrictions

    (8:41:01 AM) Sabu: they’ll go through your entire life and your girlfriends and your parents and her parents and your old boss until they find a scrap of evidence against you

    (8:41:07 AM) Sabu: then find a way to blackmail your ass

    (8:41:15 AM) Sabu: im not even fucking exagerating

    (8:41:24 AM) Sabu: I’m disgusted by what I’ve seen

    Good luck whowhatwhy team.

  11. Legalized Torture says:

    “The Hidden Threat To Free Speech in the State of the Union Address”

    Why would the Amerikan government need to HIDE its threats against the population in a kraphole nation already OPENLY suffering from legalized torture, legalized kidnappings, legalized drone-bombings of kids playing soccer 7422 miles away from here, secret courts, secret warrants, legalized police brutality, legalized financial fraud, massive wiretappings of absolutely everyone and everything, a worldwide web of clandestine detention/torture centers overseas, a state-controlled news media, legalized food poisoning, legalized electoral fraud, a corrupt judiciary, legalized highway robbery (aka Civil Asset Forfeitures), legalized market data manipulation, and forcing the population to buy overpriced “healthcare” plans practically at gunpoint?

    Please.

    Your dictator has nothing but contempt for insouciant American’ts and -quite frankly at this point- SO DO *I*. We now return you to your economic, moral and social collapse. There will be no further commercial interruptions.

    ENJOY.