The Hero We Need

Free Software Principles

Article from Issue 204/2017

Malwaretech stood up for us. Now we should stand up for him.

The security researcher Marcus Hutchins, known professionally as malwaretech, has been arrested in the US, accused of creating the Kronos banking trojan and conspiring to sell it for $3,000 on the dark web.

This seems unlikely to me, given that he had previously turned down a $10,000 reward for his work on stopping WannaCry. Yes, that same WannaCry ransomware that threatened several organizations in Europe (and would have targeted the US if Hutchins hadn't got to it first).

Ten thousand dollars is more than $3,000, so the motives don't add up for me. Hutchins may or may not have written some code, and that code may or may not have been used to commit a crime. Tech-literate people, such as the readers of Linux Magazine, understand the difference between creating a work and using it to commit a crime, but most of the media coverage – in the UK, at least – has been desperate to follow the paradigm of building a man up only to gleefully knock him down. Even his achievement of stopping WannaCry is decried as "accidental," a word full of self-deprecating charm when used by Hutchins, but which simply sounds malicious in the hands of the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.

I'm sure justice will prevail eventually, but in the meantime, there's a chap in a very sticky situation and a government department making itself look silly. Then there's the UK government, which, now that it's turned its back on the EU, is desperate not to upset the "special relationship" by standing up for its subjects.

I don't know whether he's done anything wrong, but I do know that there are no advocates standing up for the right to play with code. For all the purity of its intentions, the Free Software Foundation has had nothing to say about the four freedoms in this case. Any hacker at home who downloads some malware and examines the code, whether that's to look for weaknesses, to find ways to improve it, or just out of interest, is putting themselves at risk of arrest the next time they travel to the US, regardless of their intention. What's implied in this is that the government is allowed to decide who can study, learn from, copy, and share code, which is definitely not what the founding fathers of Free Software imagined.

If the tool Hutchins is alleged to have made was, for example, a gun, there would be no drama at all: the National Rifle Association is very clear that guns don't kill people; murderers kill people. Guns, the argument goes, are inanimate objects. Likewise malware created by security researchers doesn't shut down banks; it's black hats who deploy it that do the damage. And I don't know or care whether the alleged evil software was written on Linux or not. The logic of the prosecution defies the principles of Free Software, so it shouldn't matter what platform it was written for. Free Software campaigners aren't just fighting for bearded Trisquel users: We all need our representatives to step up and do better.

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