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Hacking The CIA Director’s AOL Account Was A Political Act

The vast majority of media coverage of the recent hack of the personal AOL account of CIA director John Brennan omits the hacker’s political motivations. Instead, these reports rely on stereotypes of hacker to disregard the importance of his message.

A teenager hacked into the personal AOL account of CIA director John Brennan. The teen, who remains anonymous, explicitly informed multiple media outlets he committed the act to “free Palestine” or call attention to the issue of violence against Palestinians. Some documents from Brennan’s account have been published by WikiLeaks.

The omission quite deliberately mutes the political agency of the teenager. It enables media outlets to cover the hack as a straightforward, malicious criminal hack instead of one inspired by an activist-minded impulse.

The New York Post interviewed the high school student, who claimed to hack into Brennan’s AOL account with the help of a group he called “Crackas With Attitude.” He told the Post over a “series of phone conversations” he was “motivated by opposition to U.S. foreign policy and support for Palestine.”

The teen also spoke to The Daily Dot and stated, “We aren’t doing this for personal gain. It’s for Free Palestine and Free Gaza.”

Wired reported the teen and his group called Brennan’s mobile phone number using VoIP to tell him he had been hacked.

“[I]t was like ‘Hey,…. its CWA.’ He was like ‘What do you want?’ We said ‘2 trillion dollars hahhaa, just joking,’” the hacker recounted to WIRED.

Brennan, the hacker says, replied, “How much do you really want?”

They told Brennan “We just want Palestine to be free and for you to stop killing innocent people.”

The teenager and his group used social engineering techniques to successfully obtain access to Brennan’s account. They impersonated a Verizon technician, claimed Brennan couldn’t access Verizon’s customer database because “tools were down,” and asked Verizon to lookup details for Brennan’s account. They provided a fabricated employee code and obtained the information. After that, they had the personal identifying information necessary to reset his AOL password and get into his account.

New York Daily News, CNN, and other outlets reported the teenager is a white boy. He likes to “smoke pot,” and the boy and his group were high when hacking into Brennan’s email account. This gave the teen the stoned hacker persona, which has largely defined how reporters cover the hack.

But viewing the act as the malice of a stoned hacker distracts from the fact that the hack may be best understood as disruptive activism. Although the hack involved breaking the law, it had political aims. However, most journalists have firmly held viewpoints about hackers, which get in the way of reasonably discussing motives.

The ‘central deviant of the information society’

Author Molly Sauter explores characterizations of hackers in her book, “The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet.” She highlights the “media’s use of the stereotypical hacker figure to promote a social fear of technology and pervasive environment of technoparanoia.”

Hacker is a catch-all term. It means any type of “bad” or criminal computer activity. The hacker is a male “folk devil,” the “personification  of our anxieties about technology.” He is the “central deviant of the information society.” His life, as in this case, is “socially, economically, and often physically isolated.”

“See, for example, the stereotypic image of the adolescent hacker living in his parents’ basement,” Sauter writes. “Because he is socially alienated, he lacks the normal social checks on his behavior, and is instead engaged in compulsive, competitive cycles with other hackers, who egg on each other’s antisocial behavior. He doesn’t abide by conventional morality because he is immature or young. His relationship with technology is pathological, and he is sometimes described as being ‘addicted’ to computers or the internet.”

Furthermore, Sauter adds, “The hacker is locationless and decentralized, able to cause harm far from his actual location. The hacker folk devil is therefore cast as abnormal, alienated from conventional socials morals, a predictably bad actor, capable and willing to cause great harm to individuals, corporations, and the state. Not only is the hacker tarred with this brush, but anyone who participates in activities or holds views associated with hackers are held guilty by association.”

This attitude is apparent in reports on the teenager involved in the hack of Brennan’s AOL account, and this attitude conditions reporters to not care about asking follow-up questions about his political motivations. For example, why did the teenager and his group choose Brennan? How do they see him playing an integral role in U.S. support for the occupation of Palestine? What do they believe the CIA is doing in Palestine and what did they hope to find by hacking into the CIA director’s private AOL account?

These are legitimate questions because the answers potentially explain the acts of rebellion and how thought-out or sophisticated the plans were.

Questions can be asked without condoning the act itself and would enable a discussion of whether a person’s private accounts are off-limits to hacktivism directed at an official engaged in criminal misconduct or the concealing of the truth.

In this case, the perceived misconduct is related to Palestine, but it could also include Brennan’s role in the expansion of the U.S. program of targeted assassinations in countries abroad.

Additionally, when WikiLeaks made the announcement through the organization’s Twitter feed that it had obtained Brennan’s emails, thousands of people paid attention and numerous outlets were prepared to cover revelations. It was presumed there would be significant revelations stemming from information that Brennan preferred to keep hidden from the public. So, the teen had reason to believe the hack would expose wrongdoing.

Hacktivism and American civil disobedience

At least one establishment pundit recognized the political nature of the hack. However, Politico’s Michael Crowley quite shallowly lumped the hack in with past activism by the peace group, CODEPINK. Crowley adopted an authoritarian premise, which unidentified “friends and associates” of Brennan do not even support, that Brennan has been a target of activism which has inappropriately and unjustly robbed him of his privacy.

“Senior leaders in government expect to be in the public eye and to be held accountable for the work they do,” said one official familiar with the hacking episode. “That comes with the territory and they readily accept the scrutiny. We understand there people who are not fans of the CIA and there is nothing wrong with speaking out against CIA or the U.S. government writ large.”

This person granted anonymity to pontificate to Crowley continued:

But illegally accessing a family email account and distributing to the world the private information of family members and other private citizens is outrageous … That’s not a lawful protest, but criminal activity that impacts a great many people with no affiliation with CIA. Our country needs the best and brightest in public service, yet this episode may strike some as evidence that the price of government service is too high.

While a bit melodramatic, the official appropriately differentiates CODEPINK activism, where CODEPINK went to Brennan’s home to confront him, and the act of hacking a private email account of an official. The unidentified official does not state that hacking an email account is not a political act but does make clear it is not a “lawful protest” but “criminal activity.”

The United States has a rich history of protest, where individuals dissenting against the state engaged in conduct, like sit-ins, draft-card burnings, or breaking into an FBI office to reveal domestic spying, which violated laws or were deemed illegal by government officials.

With the rise of hacktivism, largely brought about by Anonymous, the hacking of a personal AOL account cannot simply be written off as a criminal act. Its political nature should be confronted not because it should be socially acceptable to violate the private accounts of government officials. Rather, the public should understand these actions are the efforts of individuals, who feel they have no other choice but to wield this power in order to call attention to violence and other critical issues.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."