Barrett Brown’s arrest was wrong—but that doesn’t make him right

We do a great disservice to ourselves if we mistake Barrett Brown for a hero of the truth.

 

Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Published Jan 26, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 4:48 pm CDT

The conviction of Anonymous-tied writer Barrett Brown—who received 63 months in prison for, among other things, sharing credit card data stolen by the infamous online collective—has made Brown into a bit of Rorschach test. He’s an embedded journalist, say some, while others claim he’s under attack for being a political satirist. According to his supporters, he’s akin to Aaron Schwartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” yet another victim in the latest “nerd scare.” Or, if you believe his prosecutors, he was a spokesman for Anonymous, complicit in their attacks on government agencies and cybersecurity firms.

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His conviction raises interesting questions for reporters covering the activities of Anonymous and groups like it.

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As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Brown is certainly no master hacker, and his ineptitude was supposedly a common joke in the IRC chatrooms Anonymous used to organize; however, Brown was admittedly involved in the group’s activities. His conviction raises interesting questions for reporters covering the activities of Anonymous and groups like it—yet Brown wasn’t exactly an on-the-ground Gonzo reporter, like Hunter S. Thompson covering the Hell’s Angels.

If we learn anything from Brown, it’s the dangers of “advocacy journalism,” blurring the borders between making your subject sympathetic and avidly fighting for them. Brown made all effort to drop his ties with Anonymous when they became legally inconvenient, but his actions and his reporting tell not the story of a paragon of journalistic integrity but of someone who wanted one foot in the exciting danger of Anonymous and the other in the world of legitimacy as a reporter.

As Anonymous has no clear leadership—and therefore, no titled positions—there is no way to assign Brown or anyone else to be the group’s “spokesman.” It’s a job Brown had to take himself.

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How Brown strode that fence is best told by analyzing his status as a “spokesman” for Anonymous. It’s a title Brown has repeatedly shrugged off (though he admitted to owning it in order to gain cred with sources), but it’s worth examining the functionality of his reporting in this role. As Anonymous has no clear leadership—and therefore, no titled positions—there is no way to assign Brown or anyone else to be the group’s “spokesman.” It’s a job Brown had to take himself.

Anonymous is, almost by definition, a hard group to report on. Any reporting will, of course, rely heavily on unnamed sources and perhaps shady reliance on said sources to honestly convey their role in something like organizing a DDoS attack or a web-wide protest. This is why the role of “spokesman” holds such value: Any face that stands up and says “I’m Anonymous” gives reporters an on-the-record source for the story.

Or, as activist Gregg Housh (who has contributed to the Daily Dot) put it in the middle of a very revealing 2011 profile of Brown, “everyone just knows that Gregg is willing to talk to The Man.” Housh served as the go-to source for reporters covering Anonymous’ attack on the websites of Visa and Mastercard, a response to the two companies’ decisions to not allow donations to Wikileaks. Wired used him as the face of the group’s movement against Scientology and he was a consultant on cybersecurity matters for Season 2 of House of Cardsa show that hinges a major plotline on the arrest of Barrett Brown.

Barrett Brown and Gregg Housh had supposedly inked a book deal to write about their time in Anonymous.

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Brown has largely served the same purpose. He billed himself as the “propagandist” for Anonymous to NBC News. In almost every pre-trial mention of Anonymous, he refers to actions “we’ve” taken and what “our” principles are. That 2011 profile, written by a longtime friend of Brown, proudly bears the title “Barrett Brown Is Anonymous.” In fact, Brown and Housh had supposedly inked a book deal to write about their time in the group.

While that doesn’t necessarily make him a criminal, it also removes any impartiality Brown could ever have as a reporter. If we are to follow the analogy of the “embedded” wartime reporter, would anyone take Richard Engel seriously if he called himself a “propagandist” for Syrian rebels, even if in jest? Even Brown’s Wikileaks-esque project, Project PM, is not a fair-handed attempt to report on the cybersecurity industry but a transparent attempt to gather discrediting data on the same agencies tasked with investigating Anonymous,something the group takes as a high priority.

If Brown is not a reporter, what are we to make of his conviction?

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So if Brown is not a reporter, what are we to make of his conviction? The most publicized of his charges is for “merely linking” to credit card data Anonymous hackers stole from security firm Stratfor, an act that earned Brown an accessory-after-the-fact charge. Some reporters see this conviction as an existential threat to infosec reporting, with veteran Quinn Norton dropping out of the field altogether in protest.

While Norton made her move in an effort to protect herself from the misconceptions of working with hackers and stolen data, one can say she’s likely free of making the mistake Brown made. The validity of stolen data must always rest on the interest of the public good, as the media as a whole found out pouring over the juicy emails of Sony Pictures executives. Although reporters often found themselves between the lines of legitimacy and tabloidism, most knew enough not to link to the many personal and financial details Guardians of Peace released from Sony’s network.

A similar question came out of the massive leak of celebrity nudes dubbed “Celebgate.” While some publications ran censored versions of the photographs, you’d struggle to find one legitimate news agency that linked to the photos themselves. Even Reddit, with all its dark corners, banned users from linking to the photos.

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We do a great disservice to ourselves if we mistake Barrett Brown for a hero of the truth.

While most reporters will handle such sensitive data in the trusted confines of a newsroom, Brown was conducting his reporting and verifying in the untraceable world of IRC chatrooms—his indictment specifically mentions taking the hyperlink to credit card data from an Anonymous IRC to one specific to Brown’s Project PM.

Of course, this is not the same as publishing stolen data or nude photos on a news site. But they do put in to context the dangers of partiality as a journalist. What Anonymous did by stealing data from Stratfor was illegal—no one challenges that. Brown sharing the link to Stratfor data with his Project PM cohorts is likely no different than what takes place in the private chatrooms of any news organization that covers cybersecurity. What makes the action problematic, and the point that all journalists should remember, is that Brown’s blatant bias against the company turned him into an activist, not a reporter.

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We do a great disservice to ourselves if we mistake Barrett Brown for a hero of the truth. His conviction is very concerning and moves the government closer to restricting the press’ ability to report on not just hackers but any ill-begotten data that could stand to benefit the greater public good—Glenn Greenwald and the offices of the Guardian found those lines in reporting on Edward Snowden. But let us not paint a false portrait of a man who long ago abandoned any attempt to uphold the same journalist ethics his conviction may endanger. 

Photo via Connor Tarter/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 26, 2015, 1:00 pm CST