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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These "free the files" protests are crimes under U.S. law, but in most cases they are not crimes of the nature the legal system was designed to prosecute. When they take the form of denial-of-service attacks, overwhelming and shutting down websites with bogus traffic, they resemble protests protected in some cases by the First Amendment. Others follow in the tradition of the country's most heralded technological revolutionaries. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg hacked the Harvard databases of student IDs to create Facemash, the predecessor to his current multibillion-dollar site. As a teenager, Apple founder Steve Jobs sold boxes built by his friend Steve Wozniak to fool the phone company and make free long-distance calls. Microsoft's Bill Gates hacked the accounts of an early computer company to avoid having to pay to use it.

By the early 1990s, the hacktivists were organizing around larger goals, like ensuring online privacy for individuals. A hacker named Phil Zimmermann created a data-encryption program called PGP, which used a software technology that was classified as a "munition" under U.S. law and therefore banned for export. Zimmermann responded by publishing his code in a book, via MIT Press, since the export of printed matter is protected by the First Amendment. The movement that grew up around these efforts helped give birth to WikiLeaks. Today that same defiant spirit still dominates large swaths of the Internet, informing the actions of people like Snowden, Manning and Swartz. "It's a generation of kids who have been told again and again that behaviors that seem perfectly reasonable to them are criminal," says Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor who was a mentor to Swartz.

Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively about cyberculture, says two disparate ideas have been linked in recent years. "There was always this kind of tech-hacker ethos, which was probably libertarian, which has collided with this antiauthoritarian political impulse," he said. "You put these two things together, and it's just like wildfire."

"We are legion," runs the catchphrase of Anonymous. "We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us." Now the government has to figure out how to respond.

Dawn of the Informer Age

In the days after the Snowden disclosures, a coalition of 86 groups--including online communities like 4chan, Reddit and BoingBoing--signed on to an open petition to Congress calling the NSA programs "unconstitutional surveillance." A petition filed with WhiteHouse.gov calling on Obama to pardon Snowden reached 60,000 names in three days. Sales of George Orwell's 64-year-old antitotalitarian novel 1984 have soared. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which usually raises money for liberal candidates, founded a legal-defense fund for Snowden. And a recent online video campaign--with Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone, actors such as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, and several liberal journalists--has been organizing a social-media campaign called "I am Bradley Manning," which argues Manning was nothing more than a whistle-blower who should be protected from prosecution.

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