A screenshot of Barrett Brown

Barrett Brown faces 45 years in prison for posting a link in a chat room.

Trying to think of less sympathetic figure than Barrett Brown would be a difficult task for many Americans. He’s rude, vindictive, and seems to get a particular joy from pissing people off. He’s gone out of his way to anger groups ranging from the FBI to the Zetas, all while being the quasi-official spokesman for Anonymous – a group on the shit list of nearly every powerful person on the planet.

So surprise, Barrett Brown has been arrested. The initial arrest is pretty understandable, Brown went on a long YouTube tirade which appropriately began with “I don’t make plans.” Within the seemingly endless series of insults is a direct threat to FBI agent Robert Smith as well as a promise to meet any U.S government officials trying to arrest him with armed resistance. Bad move.

First off, law enforcement — acting under a legal warrant — has the right to arrest a citizen. In what world would that not be the case? Brown’s threat to meet that legitimate use of authority with violence is wildly out of line and indefensible. It’s also worth noting that when Brown was arrested by the Dallas Police – caught on video – he did not offer armed resistance. Whether this was due to his rant being an idle threat or him not having time to get access to a weapon is an open question.

Secondly, threatening an FBI agent and his family with any destructive act – though apparently non-violent and perhaps legal – is pretty dumb if you are trying to stop harassment. Brown claimed, which has all the probability of being true, that Agent Smith was harassing his mother. Very plausible as this is generally how the FBI conducts its affairs – terrorizing putting pressure on family members to assist them in destroying a target. And given Brown’s political associations the bare-knuckle tactics he alleges would fit well with the FBI’s history of persecuting political dissidents in America

So Brown was already on the radar for his activism, he was being harassed by the government, and cracked under the pressure by making threats that lead to an arrest. So why should YOU care?

You should care because what happened next not only affects you but will affect any user of the internet.

While in custody Barrett Brown was indicted again, this time for computer fraud and identity theft. This indictment, unlike the first, lacked all semblance of proportionality and legitimacy. Apparently Brown was not the only one to lose his senses:

Dallas writer Barrett Brown, who was involved with the “hacktivist” movement Anonymous until earlier this year, was indicted last Tuesday (Dec. 4) on 12 counts related to possession of stolen credit-card numbers.

The indictment alleges that Brown possessed at least 10 stolen credit-card numbers and card-verification values (CVVs), and also shared a link to a document that contained thousands more stolen credit-card numbers. He faces 45 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

However, the indictment does not allege that Brown himself stole the credit-card numbers or that he profited from having them. It states that merely possessing the numbers shows “intent to defraud.”

Wait, what?

What Brown actually did was post a link to a “data dump” of stolen information, including credit-card numbers, on his own Internet Relay Chat forum. He also had one or more text files containing about 10 stolen credit-card numbers on his own computer.

If that’s the case, then dozens of technology journalists, including possibly this writer, as well hundreds of technology researchers, might be considered just as guilty as Brown.

Many online news reports include links to websites where politically motivated hackers post their manifestos, and those manifestos in turn often contain links to file-sharing sites that house stolen data.

Are journalists who post those links trafficking in stolen goods?

So now, posting a link on a chat forum is … a crime?

What is clear is that federal prosecutors seem to be stretching the definition of digital-information crimes to include a wide range of activities that would, in the physical world, be considered lawful.

In the real world, it’s not a criminal offense to know a stranger’s name, address or license-plate number. It’s not a crime to find and pick up a credit card that someone else dropped in the street.

In the physical world, you don’t actually commit a crime until you take action by stealing the stranger’s car, breaking into his house or using his credit card.

But according to Barrett Brown’s indictment, merely knowing the digital equivalents of these items is enough to send you to prison for 45 years.

If this indictment stands and becomes precedent for law enforcement YOU will have less rights on the internet than you do in the physical world and should you post the wrong link in the wrong place, will be subject to arrest and up to 45 years imprisonment.

These are truly outrageous charges and I am forced to wonder if the people who were too dumb to get out of grand jury duty understood what the government was actually saying – that posting a link on the internet that may contain privileged information posted by a third party is a crime. That merely knowing someone’s credit card number or other piece of privileged information and having a record of that knowledge is a crime. The Department of Defense often talks about the 21st century being defined by Information Warfare, if this indictment stands there will be a war on information itself.

And that’s something YOU should care about.

Photo based on a screenshot from Youtube.