The Geeks Who Leak

The President calls them a threat to national security. The Internet calls them heroes. A new wave of hacktivists is changing the way we handle secrets

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Photo-Illustration by Joe Magee for TIME. Swartz: Fred Benenson; Snowden: Guardian / Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / EPA; Manning: Patrick Semansky / AP

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But among Snowden and Manning's age group, from 18 to 34, the numbers are much higher, with 43% saying Snowden should not be prosecuted. That hacktivist ethos is growing around the world, driven in large part by young hackers who are increasingly disrupting all manner of institutional power with online protest and Internet theft. "That's the most optimistic thing that is happening--the radicalization of the Internet-educated youth, people who are receiving their values from the Internet," said Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, in an April interview with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. "This is the political education of apolitical technical people. It is extraordinary."

The stories show up in newspapers and courtrooms on a daily basis. Just as Snowden flew to Hong Kong with his stolen cache, a 28-year-old hacker named Jeremy Hammond pleaded guilty in New York City on May 28 to stealing e-mails, credit-card information and documents from Stratfor Global Intelligence Service, a private consulting company. Hammond expressed little remorse for working with a hacking and activist collective known as Anonymous to break the law. "I did this because I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors," he wrote on a website after pleading guilty. "I did what I believe is right."

In recent years, Anonymous has targeted companies like MasterCard and trade groups like the Motion Picture Association of America for the alleged crime of opposing openness. They have staged protests against the rapid-transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area, when authorities shut down cellular service, and staged rallies around the world against Scientology, to protest the religion's aggressive protection of its secrets. In 2011, hackers claiming to be Anonymous stole personal details of 77 million Sony PlayStation accounts, shutting down the network for a month, in apparent protest of a prohibition the company had imposed on installing certain features on the devices' firmware.

Others have targeted academia and the law. Swartz, who committed suicide at the age of 26 in January while under federal indictment for hacking an academic computer, downloaded and publicly released millions of federal court documents from a U.S. court computer system in protest of a per-page fee for access. He was arrested for trying to download huge volumes of copyrighted academic articles from the costly JSTOR database at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Those who have been locked out are not standing idly by," he had argued about the need to liberate information to the public domain.

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