[Artwork adapted slightly from Leo Reynolds on Flickr]
After the 9/11 attacks, a traumatized nation considered whether the attacks could have been thwarted by coordinating intelligence-gathering better between the FBI and CIA. From that impulse grew the fusion centers, of which there are now at least 7277 86 across the country. Us lucky SOBs here in Massachusetts get two, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center at One Schroeder Plaza, Roxbury, MA 02120 and the Commonwealth Fusion Center at 124 Acton Street, Maynard, MA 01754. The idea was that they would be able to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur, by gathering representatives from different agencies, and in some cases the military and the private sector, together to report on “suspicious activity”. In practice, it has not worked.
Thing is, actual terrorists are relatively thin on the ground. A network of 7277 86 fusion centers might handle three genuine cases of terrorism between them in any given year. That’s not enough to enable each fusion center to show that it’s doing anything at all. What’s a good bureaucrat to do?
There are no words to describe the loss to the world of brilliant technologist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself this weekend at the age of 26.
Aaron had already helped to develop RSS and Reddit, worked to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act, and was deeply involved in Internet activism. He could easily have devoted his extraordinary skills only to profit; instead, he committed himself passionately to openness and the spread of knowledge. Lawrence Lessig has summarized his work far better than I can. The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave the eulogy at his funeral.
Aaron’s death teaches us an important lesson about how the law operates here in 21st-century America. He was not the only local activist to be unnecessarily persecuted by government agencies. Laws relating to our Internet activities have been drawn so widely and so poorly that eager prosecutors can find grounds for indicting more or less anyone, for things that in former times the law would not have defined as crimes at all. Government agencies can now open investigations on people, and subject them to the sledgehammer of the criminal justice system, on the strength of nothing more than unwise posts on Twitter or translating the wrong materials. Prosecutors answer to nobody regarding the fairness or proportionality of their investigations.
The result is that dissidents who hamper powerful interests can far too easily be investigated and silenced. The result is that brilliant, original and public-spirited souls like Swartz exhaust their energies on meaningless legal battles, rather than developing new and wondrous technologies to solve problems we all face. We’ll never know now what Aaron Swartz would have come up with next, thanks to the casual brutality of a criminal justice system that cares more for creating criminals than for achieving justice.
Know what side you’re on. Overcriminalization hurts us all. We need to stand together, and rein in this crazy system, before it chews us all up.