It’s official: The love affair between hackers and feds is over, thanks to revelations about National Security Agency snooping and what many see as overly harsh or misdirected prosecutions of “hacktivists.”
But it’s not clear whether the two are splitsville forever or just taking a time-out.
DefCon, the biggest annual U.S. conference for computer hackers, last year featured the director of the National Security Agency as its keynote speaker — and his agency operated a kiosk, where it handed out tchotchkes, brochures and job applications.
DefCon founder Jeff Moss says law enforcement and intelligence officials should stay away this year.
“Feds, we need some time apart,” Mr. Moss, the hacker known as “Dark Tangent,” wrote late Wednesday on his blog, prompting a lively Internet discussion about the ethics and wisdom of the attempted exclusion — and the changing character of the hacker community itself.
DefCon, which last year was attended by an estimated 13,000 people, has long been “a place where seasoned pros, hackers, academics, and feds can meet, share ideas and party on neutral territory,” Mr. Moss wrote.
He added: “When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship. Therefore, I think it would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a ‘time-out’ and not attend DefCon this year.”
According to his Twitter feed, Mr. Moss was traveling Thursday, and neither he nor any other organizer responded to emails requesting comment.
In previous years, “the U.S. Government recruiters were incredibly rude and creepy, with little to no transparency” about what they were recruiting for, wrote a former DefCon volunteer organizer, using the handle Nulltone.
The former organizer compared U.S. government recruiters to representatives of foreign intelligence services, who “were actually incredibly polite and understood that transparency was appreciated.”
The NSA did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s the right move,” Kevin Gallagher, director of the Free Barrett Brown Campaign, said of DefCon’s proposed ban on intelligence and law enforcement.
Mr. Gallagher said the unease in the hacker community stems from not just the revelations about the NSA’s data-gathering, but also how the FBI and the Justice Department had moved aggressively to prosecute certain hackers.
Barrett Brown, a freelance journalist from Dallas, faces more than 100 years in prison after being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of trafficking in stolen goods after he shared a link to data taken by hackers from the computer network of private intelligence firm Stratfor. He has spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial.
“Barrett Brown is not a hacker. He is not a criminal,” said Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit that defends press freedom. “[He] was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty by looking into the Stratfor emails, an affair of public interest.”
The group’s general secretary, Christophe Deloire, said Thursday that the 105-year prison sentence Mr. Brown faces is “absurd and dangerous,” noting that Jeremy Hammond, who pleaded guilty for the actual hack on Stratfor, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
“Threatening a journalist with a possible century-long jail sentences is a scary prospect for journalists investigating the intelligence government contractor industry,” Mr. Deloire said.
Mr. Gallagher said the charges “criminalize anyone who links to original source documents,” as Mr. Brown did to a cache of emails and other data stolen from Stratfor by Hammond. He said Mr. Brown faces obstruction of justice charges because he refused to tell authorities where his laptop is.
“That is criminalizing reporting,” he said. “He didn’t want to give up his sources.”
Mr. Gallagher said the campaign is gathering momentum but needs to raise at least $190,000 to cover the legal costs of the trial, expected to start in September.
He linked Mr. Brown’s case to others, like that of Aaron Swartz, a hacker who killed himself in January after being indicted by a federal prosecutor for hacking into computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“These overprosecutions contribute to an atmosphere where people don’t feel comfortable” with law enforcement or intelligence officials present, he said.
Not everyone agrees.
DefCon speaker Matt Joyce accuses Mr. Moss of “burning bridges” at “a moment in our nation’s history when a great deal is at stake.”
“There’s a hell of a lot of people working in or for the federal government. Most of those folks, are perfectly fine and decent human beings,” he wrote.
Others are more cynical.
“I think it’s good PR to create media controversy to sell more tickets,” said former hacker Kevin Mitnick. “Jeff works for the Feds, doesn’t he?”
Indeed, Mr. Moss is in many ways a poster child for the recent embrace of hacker culture by the computer security establishment, in both the government and private sectors.
He is the chief security officer for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a nonprofit that doles out domain names, and is a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
“The bottom line is the feds will be there anyway,” Mr. Mitnick said in an email. “Jeff knows this.”