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Hackers Unite 

Geeks rally for jailed Russian programmer. But it’s hard to explain why it really does matter.

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
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“This goes way beyond geeks,” complained computer-engineering student Eric Gradman, shouting over the indifferent rumble of passing cars on Sepulveda and Santa Monica boulevards Monday afternoon. “We‘re talking about a foreign citizen being arrested in the U.S. for giving a speech about code. And since code is speech, this is a major infringement of free-speech rights. It’s everybody‘s business.”

Maybe so, but it was hard to find a non-geek among the 25-odd who gathered with Gradman to protest the arrest of Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, the 26-year-old father of two who is currently being held without bail by the U.S. attorney in San Francisco for allegedly violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a fuzzy law enacted in 1998 to prevent the piracy of copyrighted works.

In their knee-length khaki shorts, half-socks and digital-logo T-shirts, the newly hatched activists appeared a fundamentally code-minded bunch; the only women present were the bent-legged, busty silhouettes running down one man’s pant leg -- the same familiar image that typically graces tricked-out pickups. “It‘s unfortunate,” the man said to me. “For some reason we can’t get women interested.”

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Or, for that matter, the general public.

One protester claimed to have scored a number of converts, but passersby under the building that houses the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein -- a staunch proponent of the DMCA -- reacted with a steady hum of apathy. One bald man in a business suit stopped briefly to ask Gradman what the ruckus was about. “Dmitry Sklyarov, arrested in Las Vegas for writing software!” Gradman spat out. The light changed, and the man headed across the street with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Reports from other cities suggest that concurrent protests in Boston and Minneapolis enjoyed more attention and success; 160 protesters showed up in San Francisco. But the Los Angeles convocation had the unfortunate constraint of taking place in Los Angeles, where restless drivers need more than a sound argument to unleash themselves from their mobile headsets, find a parking place and ask questions. No doubt the L.A. protesters‘ lackadaisical techniques were somewhat at fault -- no anarchists these, scaling buildings to unfurl banners symbolizing their cause. Signs bearing slogans such as “Repeal the DMCA” and “Computing is not a crime” failed to raise the passions of Angelenos negotiating left turns at one of the city’s busiest intersections. Nor did compelling images of a boyishly handsome Sklyarov with his pretty wife and children. Except for rumors that hacker-turned-reporter Kevin Mitnick was hovering in the crowd, news media were nowhere to be found. “We thought about storming Feinstein‘s office,” the man in girlie pants said to me, “but then someone just said, ’Well, the security guards probably wouldn‘t let us up.’ I mean, how lame is that?”

But even if they‘d drawn a crowd, this ragtag bunch of programmers and Internet consultants would have had a higher hurdle to clear: how to get the lay public to understand the esoteric reasons that make the arrest of Sklyarov so staggeringly outrageous. Sklyarov, a Russian citizen and employee of ElcomSoft in Moscow, was apprehended July 16 by the FBI in Las Vegas a after Def Con 9, a hacker convention that’s become increasingly respectable over the years as the boys who hack systems have grown into consultants on Internet security. Sklyarov, for his part, showed how Adobe Systems‘ eBooks, which are encrypted to prevent copying among computers, could be decoded into Adobe’s eminently reproducible Portable Document Format. Sklyarov didn‘t make any copies himself, but his company did release the software, which, under certain vague terms of the DMCA, might make ElcomSoft guilty of producing a “circumvention device” to beat copyright protection. “It’s like outlawing a photocopy machine,” said protester Oscar Boykin, a UCLA security researcher. “I mean, think about cryptography. It‘s just mathematics. At what point does it become illegal to figure it out? Are they going to make mathematics illegal?”

The DMCA was also the reason professor Edward Felten, a security expert at Princeton University, was harassed with threats from the record industry’s piracy-monitoring group, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, for deciphering a digital watermark code meant to protect music from copying. Felten had planned to present his findings at a conference on information hiding; after the threats, he backed down. But on June 9 he filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of forbidding discussion of his research. Boykin insists that Sklyarov‘s activities were legal. “For one thing, he was an employee of a company, so it’s the company that should be sued. For another, he did it for research, not for the purposes of piracy -- his program could be used to help blind people put eBooks through their reading programs.”

The preservation of its eBook copyright-protection scheme was likely the only matter on Adobe‘s agenda when it complained about Sklyarov to the FBI two weeks ago. After a talking-to by the civil-liberties watchdogs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation about fair use and free speech, Adobe withdrew its complaint, noting that ElcomSoft had ceased distributing the software in the U.S. Unfortunately for Sklyarov, the company lodged its gripe at an all-too-convenient moment.

The FBI desperately needed a public-relations coup in the wake of the Timothy McVeigh debacle, revelations about a spy in its ranks and accusations of mismanagement. Who better than a Russian hacker to serve that end? What’s more, George W. Bush‘s nominee for FBI director just happens to be the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, Robert Mueller, who holds sole prosecutorial authority over Sklyarov. In his Senate hearings on Monday, the 56-year-old ex-Marine and founder of a law-enforcement squad called CHIP (for Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property), made a point of promising to be extra hard on “high-tech crimes.” Yet despite his Russian-ness and hacker affiliations, Sklyarov fits no high-tech-criminal profile. “All Dmitry did was write a program,” Boykin demurred.

Sklyarov’s arrest sets a scary precedent for anyone who‘s ever squandered a little time unraveling code or reverse-engineering software, which is, to my mind, the best way to figure out how computer programming works. Did Sklyarov know he was running afoul of the feds when he delivered his speech? “He probably knew in the back of his mind there was some law against cracking copyright-protection code in this country,” said Boykin. “But probably in the same way that Americans think about premarital sex in Iran. They know it’s against the law, but they don‘t expect to get arrested for it in their hotel rooms.” The protesters plan to convene again next week at a new location -- and, let’s hope, with sexier slogans. How about “Keep Your Laws Off My Box”?

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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