Computer Scientists need a new lexicographer

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.


2 thoughts on “Computer Scientists need a new lexicographer

  1. I wonder if it’s the court that needs better PR here. How accurate is Digital Bond’s summary of the case? Did the decision really turn on the definition of “hacker”? Is one subject to a TRO simply because it states that it enjoys a particular activity, regardless of whether it is nefarious?

    • The Digital Bond summary (and even this blog post) is too compressed to articulate the legal standard. There were two steps to the opinion. First, the court determined that a temporary restraining order was appropriate, to prevent publishing source code on which both parties claimed to hold copyright. Only after granting the TRO, did the court authorize seizing the defendant’s computers to prevent the “hackers” from destroying evidence.

      I would not suggest the court needs better PR. Maybe the court needs more informed lawyers (queue the need for computer science PR). Under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct 3.3(d) concerning candor towards the tribunal, it’s the plaintiff’s lawyer’s responsibility to not mislead the court when he *knows* facts that would help the court make an informed decision. In this case, the defendant’s lawyer didn’t have a chance to set the record straight.

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