Wired, surprisingly, has a very interesting story about three hackers who created a botnet tool that eventually crashed significant parts of the internet. It raises very interesting questions about how kids — because these hackers were kids when they started — fall into these kinds of self-sabotaging traps and how justice is applied. Unsurprisingly, because it is Wired, they don’t spend a lot of time on those questions.
I am not criticizing the article, I should add. It is a fascinating portrait of three young men who made it possible to break significant portions of the internet and I highly recommend reading it. However, it does slight some of the more interesting questions it raises in the service of telling its specific story.
The easiest of these is why the boys did what they did. It largely boils down to a combination of isolation and because they could get away with it. All three of the young men had trouble fitting in (one was the product of an overly strict Christian homeschool movement, one had ADHD that his culture saw as shameful and so he did not get treatment and suffered in school and thus his parent’s eyes, and one was bullied constantly because of his speech impediment). The hacker forums they frequented gave them a sense of accomplishment and belonging and the ease of their early exploits triggered the same part of their adolescent brain that make young people think they are invincible.
It is an old story, but sometimes the old stories still have things to teach us. Belonging matters much more than we admit. One of the issues with modern life is that lack of belonging, and one of the reasons that so many terrible organizations are attractive is that help provide that sense of belonging to something other than yourself. My own misspent youth was in part misspent with groups that a smarter, less isolated me would have avoided. Not every grievance is justified, but helping people, especially young people, find their way through their unreasonable grievances into something better is not something that we as a society, or we on the general left, do as well as we should. As the story of the three hackers demonstrates, people can do better when given an opportunity to, well, do better. That sense of belonging can be used for good or ill.
Which brings us to the concept of justice as a second chance. These people did real financial harm to others, as well as making the lives of countless dev ops and security professionals more stressful than they needed to be. But the FBI agent in charge provided these people with a sense of belonging outside the criminal hackers. In exchange for lighter sentences, he brought them into first his office and then the wider FBI/comp security world and gave them a means of using their skills for law enforcement. They eventually helped capture other hackers and create tools that made the internet safer. They were so enthusiastic about their help that they ended up serving no jail time and had real careers in computer security. A warm and fuzzy story with happiness all around, right?
Let’s talk about those other hackers, the ones the three helped capture, because Wired doesn’t really. In the one example of a sting they have in the story, the person caught sounds like a complete goober — even leaving his laptop open in a public space during the sting. Wired does not detail his crimes, provide his name, or tell us what happened to him. But if he ran in the same circles as the three young men in the story (the Wired story tells us that the sting worked because the target knew one of the three form their hacker forum), then he likely committed the same kinds of crimes — attacks that took down websites, probably for money. There was no mention of restorative justice for him, or for anyone else the three helped target.
And the judge who ultimately decided that the three deserved no jail time, and thus effectively a second chance (if they had gone to jail, they would not have been in a position to do the work that eventually led to their larger careers) gave them that chance because they had intact families and did not do drugs. In other words, because they needed less help than some other people, they got more and better help. That is a problem with most of the justice system — who you are and how much money you have often dictates the result you receive. These three were lucky that they found the right FBI agent to work with, that they were arrested first, and that they had a sympathetic judge, and that their life situation coincided with the judge’s biases. Change any one of those variables and the outcome is much more punitive.
I read a quote in a Christopher Stasheff novel (who says the classics are dead?) when I was a kid that has stuck with me. I am sure it’s a paraphrase at this point, having long forgotten even which novel it came from, but the gist is clear: “Equal justice means treating a peasant like a prince, not treating a prince like a peasant.” These three young men were given a second chance, a second chance that most people in their situations deserve and that many do not get. I am not claiming that all criminals deserve such chances. But I am claiming that their story shows just how capricious and arbitrary our system really is, and how much damage that capriciousness can do. We need a system that actively tries to find ways of giving these second chances as opposed to the one we have now, where the result is about luck more than it is about justices.
We have a system that too often treats princes like peasants. The story of these young men shows that there are real benefits for all of us if we build ne that instead treats peasants like princes.