Between 1983 and 2017, at least 39 computer hackers were tried and convicted across the globe for computer invasion related crimes—nineteen of whom were convicted in United States courtrooms.
Many of the U.S. hackers see themselves as crusaders for one cause or another, the most dominant of which is the cause that secret government or corporate information should be made available to the public.
Tor Ekeland is a New York-based criminal defense attorney who once was a corporate attorney protecting the interests of clients that hackers frequently target. He recently told Mother Jones reporter AJ Vicens that he walked away from the “corporate gig” because it made him an alcoholic and because the lucrative paychecks he received bored him.
“He rarely saw a courtroom,” Vicens wrote.
What to do was the question facing Ekeland once he walked away from the Manhattan world.
The now sober attorney found his calling in the case of Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, better known by his pseudonym “Weev,” who in 2010 was part of a loose-knit computer hacker group known as Goatse Security. Auernheimer, and his hacker colleagues, found a vulnerability in AT&T’s website.
Weev was arrested after drugs were found in his apartment by FBI agents executing a search warrant in connection with the AT&T hack investigation. The Justice Department dropped the drug charges and instead held Weev in custody without bail on one count of conspiracy to access a computer without authorization and one count of fraud. Six months later a New Jersey grand jury formally indicted him on one count of conspiracy to access an unauthorized computer and one count of identity theft.
In March 2013, Weev was convicted on both counts and sentenced to 41 months in prison and ordered to pay $73,000 in restitution.
Ekeland, and other members of the Weev’s defense team, appealed his conviction to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that their client had not violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). In April 2014, the Third Circuit reversed Auernheimer’s conviction, finding that venue in the case did not lie in New Jersey. In fact, the appeals court said there was an “absence of any apparent connection to New Jersey.”
“When Weev’s case came along,” Ekeland told Mother Jones, “I was like, ‘This is it!’.”
While Ekeland managed to secure Weev’s release from the federal prison system through the appeal, the prison experienced had turned Auernheimer into a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist.
Other attorneys in the field of representing unpopular clients like Weev speak highly of Ekeland.
For example, California-based criminal defense attorney Jay Leiderman, who also represents computer hackers, told Mother Jones that Ekeland is “very good” in this field of work.
“He steps up for the thankless shit and has a lot of stuff kicked back in his teeth,” Leiderman told Vicens about Ekeland. “And he does it just because people need help.”
“The political act of resistance really appeals to me,” he said.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, found in 18 U.S.C. § 1030, was enacted in 1984, according to Mother Jones, “after Ronald Reagan watched WarGames—the 1983 thriller in which a teenage Matthew Broderick hacks into the mainframe controlling America’s nukes.”
The CFAA essentially penalizes the intentional access of a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access to a protected computer. The Act was amended in 1996 to include the term “federal interest computer:” with the term “protected computer.”
Mother Jones reported that “Over the years, Congress has boosted penalties and expanded the range of chargeable offenses under the act, whose definition of a ‘protected computer’ is so broad, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, that it could apply to ‘every computer connected to the Internet.’”
“ … a client claimed he was slapped with child porn charges as part of an FBI attempt to cover up agency documents he’d obtained. (He also claimed the feds drugged and interrogated him, causing a psychotic break—the FBI won’t comment.). But Ekeland thrives on the insanity. ‘It comes really hard to know what is real,’ he says. ‘Am I being a paranoid delusional person or is that actually true—or is that person lying to me? It’s kind of fun.’ And then there was the time prosecutors accused Ekeland and his co-counsel of improperly accessing a classified document. ‘They were all indignant and basically accusing us of hacking the FBI,’ he recalls. In fact, the agency had posted the document publicly on its website.”
Tor Ekeland is a lawyer’s lawyer. His life revolves around fighting the most powerful force in the country: the U.S. government. Our hats off to this gentleman who made his bones in the trenches of our legal profession.