Irrational, fanatical repression does not always come from the right. A case in point is the persecution generated by paranoia regarding hackers of Democratic leader Barack Obama.
One of the myths debunked by the war in Ukraine was about Russian hackers who, according to cybersecurity experts, represented a terrible threat to American democracy. Shortly after the invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin, its hackers showed themselves to be — as in all countries in the world — a mixture of anti-establishment activists, ideological volunteers and criminals. Their activities, however, are rarely aimed at sabotaging foreign governments; they are directed against local power. Thus, during 2022, hackers “looted financial data from people in Russia, vandalized websites and transferred decades-old secret Russian government emails to activists abroad. … More passwords and sensitive data from Russia were released than from any other country in the world.”* If this happened in the midst of a war between Russia and the Western democracies, it is then difficult to take seriously the claim that these same young people spent resources and energy trying, for example, to alter the outcome of the U.S. elections a few years ago.
The great achievement of hacker genius Aaron Swartz in overturning the approval of internet censorship embedded in the Stop Online Piracy Act was to defuse politicians’ irrational fears about the dangers of the internet, where, they imagined, any misfortune could happen. One of those irrational fears has been, precisely, that mysterious foreign pirates from Russia are determined to sabotage U.S. elections.
In late 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump, she blamed her failure on the most outlandish of alliances: the FBI and Russian hackers. Shortly after her defeat, when speaking to a women’s forum, the disgruntled Democrat recalled the end of her campaign when FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress revealing that the federal agency had learned of the “existence of emails from the server that Clinton used as secretary of state.”*
Clinton also blamed her failure on Wikileaks for leaking emails — allegedly stolen by Russian hackers — from campaign manager John Podesta. Those same hackers, moreover, would have acted in coordination with Vladimir Putin who, according to her, “interfered in our elections, and that he did it to hurt me and help our opponent.”* This alleged strategic alliance between the Russian government and Russian cyber-pirates is precisely the fable that derailed the Ukrainian war.
In light of her defeat by Trump, President Barack Obama did not echo his former secretary of state, despite the fact that he had expressed his concern a year earlier about hackers and the need to combat them. Hacking was seen as a scourge that would not disappear but would worsen. He complained that the federal computer system was outdated and vulnerable.
A fact that was silenced as much by Obama as Clinton is that several members of her staff were lawyers from the entertainment industry in favor of toughening intellectual property rights, and thus were determined anti-hackers. His two most important officials, Joe Biden and Secretary of State Clinton, were particularly active; she had specialized in intellectual property law. When SOPA fell, the Obama administration sought to revive it, making the transmission of copyrighted information a felony. In fact, it was under his presidency that the harassment of hackers intensified.
In his State of the Union address in 2015, Obama announced tougher penalties for violating online security. The use of technology to break through an access barrier — “hacking” a computer system — was no longer a minor offense but a felony with sentences of between three and 10 years. They sought to legalize what security agencies were already doing with tricks and the manipulation of evidence. Barrett Brown, a journalist specializing in the privatization of espionage, faced charges adding up to a sentence of more than 100 years. Jeremy Hammond, programmer and musician, founded a computer security training website. In 2013, after breaking into the system of a private spy company, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for fraud. The persecution of the Anonymous group during the Obama administration was relentless.
A prosecutor involved in the harassment of the most effective and ill-at-ease of computer geniuses stated plainly, “We know you have the power to challenge the establishment and we will use Aaron Swartz’s example to scare most of you.”*
It bears reiterating that this fanatical crackdown did not happen under the arbitrary and delusional Republican Trump but during the administration of Obama, the progressive Democrat.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, these quotes could not be independently verified.