On Oct. 18 the Ecuadorian government announced they cut off internet connection to Julian Assange. Assange, an Australian computer programmer now living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, grew famous for founding Wikileaks, a website hackers use to leak classified or private documents. Ecuador said they cut off his access in preparation for the U.S. presidential election so Assange cannot interfere. Yet the leaked information poses a complex question: should we condemn hackers or thank them?
The U.S. deals with troublesome hackers in the all the time. In 2014 North Korean hackers gained access to information regarding Sony’s employees. The Sony-produced movie “The Interview”, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco and mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, motivated the attack. Many Americans expressed outrage at the violation of their freedom of speech. Domestic hackers also released private photos of nude female celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Victoria Justice. The leak, which hackers dubbed “The Fappening,” generated discussions about revenge porn, internet security and the safety and freedom of women in this country.
The hacker most relevant to today’s situation Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency employee, who leaked massive amounts of U.S. surveillance secrets in 2013. The leak revealed that the NSA spied on foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany who spoke out against the NSA’s spying, and its own citizens, collecting text messages, emails and call information going in and out of the U.S. from private servers.
What does this have to do with the presidential election? Leaks have played a significant role in influencing the voting public’s opinions of the candidates, specifically Hillary Clinton. Hackers have magnified the FBI investigation into Clinton’s private email server over the course of the campaign. Through Wikileaks, hackers revealed correspondence between members of Clinton’s staff, most notably John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign, discussing the classified information she sent through her server and how to best neutralize the negative effects (the emails were dubbed the “Podesta Emails”). Also through Wikileaks, hackers leaked emails between top Democratic Party officials from earlier in the year that showed what many saw as bias against Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, and caused Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the DNC, to resign. Trump and his supporters use the leaks surrounding Clinton’s campaign to question her trustworthiness.
“I do see how it could influence someone’s [view of the candidate] in terms of character,” senior John Lemos said.
In the cases of both Snowden and the presidential election, the media widely broadcasts the information released by the hackers and leakers, allowing Americans to form their own opinions of the situations. In 2013 when many condemned Snowden as a traitor, others focused on the information he released and sparked a debate regarding the Patriot Act and other government policies, formerly deemed insignificant, that allowed the NSA to collect their information on U.S. citizens.
“I think he’s legally a traitor but morally a hero,” senior Jeremy Molina said.
“He’s released all this information that was withheld and especially [in] a government that’s technically by the people, for the people you would expect for this information to be released.”
Clinton, her supporters and the federal government denounced Russia in 2016 for their apparent sponsorship of the Democratic National Committee and Podesta Emails hacks. Clinton called out Trump for his past relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin. But the leaks have also made many Americans reconsider how responsible Clinton was as Secretary of State under President Obama.
“Leaks, especially the leaks that we’ve had recently, reinforce the ideas that we already had about a candidate,” junior Jade Perry said. “Although we see the part of their personality they want us to see, leaks sometimes give us a fuller picture.”
Despite the significant insight hackers give into our government and its leaders, they can still be very dangerous. Snowden’s information release included secrets about U.S. military intelligence including how they spied on groups like the Taliban and what would become ISIS. Snowden claims that he trusts the media to take extreme caution when dealing with this information, but the New York Times accidentally released information regarding these military secrets because of improper selection. Besides this, foreign hackers from Russia, China and North Korea already battle our security agencies in cyberattacks and significantly damage the lives of victims of identity theft and private photo leaks.
Many questions surround hackers and their abilities. Who are they? What can they do? Can we stop them? Should governments work with them (like the FBI did during their investigation into the San Bernardino attack to crack one of the terrorists’ iPhones)? Is this the future of war?
Assange claimed the Podesta emails, his “October surprise,” would change the tide of the American election. Is this the kind of influence we want hackers to have? Do the pros of information leaks outweigh the cons?
“You have to look at the situation,” Molina said. “You can’t just generalize.”
In a world run by technology, hackers hold immense power. Only we can decide if it is for better or for worse.