Please Hacker Don't Hurt Us: The Media's Coverage Of LulzSec Has Been Cowardly and Pathetic

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Foursquare and seven years ago

“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil ” – Walter Lippmann

So, that’s it. The hacking group known as LulzSec has called off its vandalism spree, three days after releasing its one meaningful “payload”: a batch of documents from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Bold promises of similar data dumps, including “five gigabytes of government and law enforcement data from across the world“, were apparently just that; promises.

Still the Arizona release was serious enough on its own, comprising details of police use of informants and the names and home addresses of police officers and their families. The hack, we’re told, was in retaliation for SB1070, the Arizona immigration law which many have (rightly) argued encourages racial profiling. This despite the fact that blaming individual Arizona officers (and their families) for a state senate law is as wrong-headed as holding a single US army private accountable for the entire Iraq war.

But digging too deeply into LulzSec’s motives is like wrestling with a pig. What we’re dealing with here — with LulzSec, and with groups like Team Poison who released details of Tony Blair’s dentist in “protest” for the former British prime minister’s foreign policy — is a small group of angry, technologically savvy post-adolescents rebelling against authority. Post-adolescents who, as I wrote in the Guardian earlier this week, “in previous generations… would organise protest marches or start angry magazines or accidentally blow themselves up trying to make a pipe-bomb from The Anarchist Cookbook“. The only difference is that in previous generations those kids rarely had the resources to pose a danger to anyone other than themselves. Today the Internet gives them the ability to do real harm, and to risk actual innocent lives.

But, still, kids will be kids and by the time they limp out of federal prison, twenty years hence, they’ll be older and wiser. What’s far harder to comprehend is why so many fully-grown adults are happy to publicly support even the hackers’ most criminally-negligent activities.

Across the Internet, LulzSec’s Arizona hack and the morally incoherent justification that followed was met with an alarming amount support; applause even. “Who represents us in government? We have no voice, and it’s time to take it back.” wrote one commenter here on Techrunch; “I love these guys, good job :) I think we need a little revolution ala middle east in the US: Less government regulations, pro immigration laws, legalize drugs” said another. Meanwhile, over on the snappily titled “How the Media Gets it Wrong On Infosec” blog, LulzSec supporter ‘Laurelai Bailey’ added to the chorus of praise, suggesting that if the authorities really want to stop hackers then rather than arresting them “they would work to defuse the anger and outright hate people feel toward the government these days, they would take steps to show people that they are not the bad guys and stop taking such a hard approach. “

Yes, because if only the government were nicer, then teenagers would stop being so damn angry. And if only the students and teachers at Columbine hadn’t been so mean to those two nice boys then all that unpleasantness could have been avoided.

Please.

One might expect more measured coverage of the attacks from members of the professional media. Indeed, my former colleagues at the Guardian published a series of critical articles about LulzSec, including  logs from one of the group’s IRC channels and an account of the events that lead to the arrest of alleged Anonymous member Ryan Cleary. The LA Times’, too, did some solid reporting, including Salvador Rodriguez’s interview with Jimmy Chavez, president of the Arizona Highway Patrol Association, who argues “our guys are out there doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and they put themselves in harm’s way every single day. They don’t need any additional pressure on them from a — let’s just call it what it is — a terrorist organization.”

Incredibly, though, most journalists were all too happy to hop aboard the “Lulz Boat”. On Friday, the BBC’s Susan Watts conducted an interview with a spokesperson for the group, publishing a transcript that was almost indistinguishable from a celebrity fluff piece, with questions like “What is Operation Antisec in your own words?” and “Why are they (other hackers) attacking you and claiming to expose you?” The closest Watts got to challenging the group was to point out how their stated aims — to destroy copyright, and to oppose Arizona’s immigration law — seemed a bit broad. Faced with the baffling incoherence of the spokesperson’s answer — “Cannonballs will fire at banks, police, and entire governments until we (the internet) are satisfied” — she simply moved on to the next question.

And if the performance of traditional reporters was bad, that of online journalists and bloggers was downright shameful. The majority of online publications chose to take — at best — a morally ambivalent position over the hacks or — at worst — a supportive one. Boingboing happily republished chunks of text and imagery from the Arizona documents without any consideration of the morality of how they were obtained; Gawker’s Adrian Chen provided another spokesperson for the group with a self-promotional platform; while PCWorld’s Tony Bradley even argued that “We Owe LulzSec a Thank You” (for exposing holes in security). Even today, when the group made the frankly ludicrous claim that they had always planned to disband after fifty days (despite telling Susan Watts to expect more leaks on Monday), most reporters simply repeated the statement as fact rather than making any attempt to discover the real cause of the volte-face.

I’d love to say that we at TechCrunch provided a refreshing exception to this media trial-by-handjob; but we didn’t. Every LulzSec release was faithfully and uncritically reported on these pages, and in one case we even helpfully provided a link to the stolen Arizona documents that gave the home address of police officers (the link was later removed).

I mean, I get it. I really do. A lot of reporters covering the tech beat, particularly those writing online, are barely out of high school themselves and are naturally inclined to be generous towards their peers — they read LulzSec’s claims of sticking it to the man and they think “yeah, fuck the man”. That’s why young journalists need experienced editors, and why a lack of professional editorial control is the greatest hurdle to the maturation of online reporting.

But naivety is just the minor factor in the lack of critical reporting of LulzSec. The major factor is fear. Journalists are terrified that if they make so much as a murmur of criticism against cyber-criminals then they might find themselves the victims of a hack. It’s far safer just to report the most basic facts, perhaps along with a positive quote or two from the criminals, and then dive back behind the barricades; a display of moral and physical cowardice parodied rather wonderfully this week by the Daily Show’s John Hodgman.

Of course, no-one wants to see their personal emails splashed all over the Internet, or their website DDOS’d — it’s embarrassing, annoying and potentially costly. The few publications who dared to criticize LulzSec are doubtless aware that they risk retaliation: particularly the Guardian who took a similar risk earlier this year when they started to report critically on their former source, Julian Assange. But news is news and crime is crime and, when lives are put at risk by criminals, it’s the responsibility of a professional journalist to hold those criminals to account without fear or favor.

Students of journalism might recall that Irish journalist Veronica Guerin was shot in retaliation for her reporting on organized crime and drugs. In Pakistan, American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded by Al-Qaeda while reporting a story on shoe bomber Richard Reid. According to the Committee to protect journalists, since 1992 615 journalists have been murdered for doing their jobs.

Given how many of their colleagues have made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of truth, any “journalist” who gives an easy ride to a group of kids risking innocent lives “for the lulz”, just because they’re scared of having their Amazon account hacked or receiving a barrage of late night pizza deliveries, might want to consider an urgent change of career.