Compared to crimes like murder and rape, hacking seems like a relatively minor offense. After all, some geek snooping around on the Internet doesn’t really hurt anyone. Sometimes they deface websites. Sometimes they steal credit card numbers. Sometimes they plant viruses. Sometimes they are the subject of ludicrous movies from the 1980s and 90s. But hackers are hardly killers. Not yet at least.
It’s understandable, then, that New York Times columnist John Tierney ruffled some feathers a few years ago when he suggested that hackers should be sentenced to death. His justification wasn’t that the hackers caused physical harm but rather financial mayhem. “The benefits of executing a hacker would be greater, [Professor Steven Landsburg] argues, because the social costs of hacking are estimated to be so much higher: $50 billion per year,” Tierney wrote. “Deterring a mere one-fifth of 1 percent of those crimes — one in 500 hackers — would save society $100 million.” To which, Washington Post writer Robert MacMillan wrote, “Hell should reserve a special place for New York Times columnist John Tierney.”
To we freedom-loving Americans, executing hackers sounds pretty extreme. But since Tierney’s column, the idea’s actually gained some traction in other parts of the world. In 2008, Pakistan passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes law which made acts of cyber terrorism punishable by death. To boot, the laws vague language made “spoofing” and “spamming” punishable by prison sentences. In nearby Iran, judges have been equally as harsh. Last year, a Canadian citizen was sentenced to death for “insulting and desecrating Islam” after he programmed some photo uploading software that was eventually used by porn sites. Meanwhile in China, which claims to have executed a hacker as far back as 1999, has recently firmed up its punishments for hacking
Nevertheless, it’s not entirely unthinkable that something similar could happen in the United States. After all, as the notion of hacking evolves, so will the consequences that American courts are willing to hand down. Some might consider Bradley Manning a hacker for his role in leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in late 2009. While he didn’t break into any computer systems himself – he used his security clearance and a dupe Lady Gaga CD – he did allegedly give hackers access to privileged information. He’s now been in jail for more than two years, and faces 22 separate charges, including “aiding the enemy,” a capital crime that could lead to the death penalty. That or Manning could be in jail the rest of his life. The Army is now even investigating Bradley Manning’s supporters for advocating on his behalf. Julian Assange is so scared that he’ll be the first “hacker” sentenced to death that he’s sought refuge from extradition to the U.S. by taking refuge at the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
While the U.S. has yet to execute a hacker, it’s definitely getting more aggressive with its punishments for computer-related crimes. The Obama administration moved to increase the maximum sentence for breaking into a U.S. government computer from 10 years to 20 years last summer, though hackers are already being sentenced to 20 year prison terms. In 2010, Albert Gonzalez got a 20 year prison term and a $25,000 fine for stealing over 90 million credit and debit card numbers from retailers. It was the longest prison sentence ever given to a hacker in the United States. And while 20 years in jail sounds miserable, it’s a heck of a lot better than going offline forever.
- Free the Network
- Internet Week’s Portrait of the Future of Online Music
- Ladies, Stop Being So Desperate on the Internet
- Motherboard TV: Werner Herzog