The federal court for the District of Idaho recently caused a stir on the Internet by issuing a Memorandum Decision and Order (Battelle Energy Alliance v. Southfork Security) influenced by a one-sided view of what it means to be a “hacker”. In one sample reaction, security firm Digital Bond’s blog post summarized by saying that the court ‘ruled that an ICS product developer’s computer could be seized without him being notified or even heard from in court primarily because he states on his web site “we like hacking things and don’t want to stop”.’
The court appears to have relied on a commonly understood meaning of hacking, the act of acquiring access to computer resources without official authorization. The New Hacker Dictionary has many definitions of hack, but a simple and benign characterization is “an appropriate application of ingenuity” making no mention of gaining unauthorized access.
It takes a longer-form summary to get to why use of the term “hacker” was so pivotal in the Battelle case. The court ruled on the plaintiff’s request for a temporary restraining order that would disable the defendant’s website, and would preserve a copy of data for evidence in the pending copyright infringement action between the two parties. The court determined that Battelle was entitled to the temporary restraining order before the term “hacker” came up. The court did reference the term when deciding to issue the order without notice and to allow copying of the defendant’s hard drive. Much of this part of the decision was influenced by the line:
We like hacking things and we don’t want to stop.
The use of the term ‘hacking’ here is unfortunate, because it caused the judge to rely on a commonly understood meaning of hacking as the act of acquiring access to computer resources without official authorization. The opinion does not delve into the definition of “hacker,” but the failure to do so may have allowed the court to be misled. The opinion twice cites sources that articulate undesirable actions that “hackers” take, without questioning whether the conclusions apply to each and every “hacker,” especially those self-identifying by using the term in a different sense.
Among computer scientists, hacking can be a good thing. Computer Scientists may be their own lexicographer, but what they need is good Public Relations.
- This Federal Judge Appears To Have Misunderstood The Modern Use Of The Word ‘Hacker’ (businessinsider.com)
- Call Yourself A Hacker, Lose Your 4th Amendment Rights (digitalbond.com)
- Call yourself a ‘hacker’, lose your 4th Amendment right against seizures (go.theregister.com)
- Idaho court seizes developer’s computer after he says he likes ‘hacking’ (theverge.com)