Lessons learned from the Barrett Brown case

The prosecution of Barrett Brown, which seemed to go under the radar of the mainstream media, is one of the most important cases of my lifetime, and has taught us several important things.

There is no Freedom of the Press:
Barrett Brown is an investigative journalist and had been a contributor to Vanity Fair and The Guardian. He also founded Project PM, a project to crowdsource review of documents for investigative journalism. EFF reports, “Brown’s legal trouble began in 2011, when hackers obtained a voluminous set of emails from government contractor HBGary and placed them on the Internet. He turned to crowdsourcing to review records and emails taken from another government contractor, Stratfor, after hackers broke into their servers later in 2011. Those records included millions of emails discussing opportunities for rendition and assassination, and detailing attempts to subvert journalists, political groups and even foreign leaders. They also included tens of thousands of credit card numbers and their verification codes.”
Brown was not involved in the hack, nor was he the person who posted the information from the hack online. Brown simply posted a hyperlink to the material in a public chatroom. At one point, Brown was facing 105 years in prison, however he ultimately took a plea and the maximum penalty was reduced to 8 ½ years. After spending 31 months in federal custody, Brown was sentenced to 63 months, with credit for time served, and ordered to pay $890,250 in restitution. This sentence is extremely harsh, especially when you remember that Barrett Brown was not involved in the hack!

Laws are selectively enforced:
The EFF reports, “The charges relating to the hyperlink represented a serious threat to press freedom. EFF and other press organizations planned to file an amicus brief supporting Brown’s motion to dismiss eleven of the hyperlinking charges, noting that journalists routinely link to documents that, while illegally obtained, are of interest to the public.”
Barrett Brown posted a hyperlink to material related to the Strafor hack. Many other journalists have linked to leaked and/or hacked material, yet aren’t prosecuted, and few are ever investigated for doing so. As part of a plea deal to lesser charges, Brown plead guilty to “being an accessory after the fact to the unauthorized access to Stratfor’s computers” and two other charges. It should be noted that Strafor failed to encrypt the data stored on their servers. Zoe Fox of CNN called this, “an embarrassing mistake for a company specializing in security.” Additionally, Strafor was not held liable for failing to protect the sensitive information of their clients.

The State wants your willing obedience:
The EFF reports, “In September 2012, as the government intensified its investigation of the Stratfor hack and Brown specifically, he posted a series of YouTube videos and tweets allegedly threatening an FBI agent. Brown was immediately arrested and charged with a variety of criminal charges related to the threats.” Adding, “The bulk of the sentence—48 months—was for threatening the FBI agent, something that Brown himself admitted in a statement at his sentencing today was a mistake.”
Had Brown not responded in the manner he did, it is possible that he would have been released with time served upon entering a plea. However, because Barrett Brown was defiant, he faced a much harsher penalty. Even if Barrett Brown had begrudgingly complied with the FBI, that would not have been good enough for The State, as they are not happy with mere compliance, they want you to want to comply!

The value of a positive attitude:
The most important lesson of the Barrett Brown saga is to always find the silver lining. After being sentenced, Brown released a statement:

“Good news! — The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex. For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment. — Wish me luck!”

I hope that Brown is able to keep this positive attitude during his incarceration, and upon his release I hope that he continues his work as an investigate journalist. I also hope all journalists remember these lessons, but that are not pressured to stop reporting because of them!