On Independence Day, we celebrate our freedoms and those who fought for them. We celebrate the legacies of battles to define freedoms and the system that sustained a dialogue within which those particularly American definitions could form. On the Fourth of July, we pay homage to the United States of America, our history and most of all what it represents — to Americans and, less often, to the larger world. America, we say together in the glare of carefully engineered fire, the land of the free.
While enjoying the fireworks, the corn and the hamburgers, we would do well to remember that freedom is negotiated. Its definition is always in flux. Changes can happen in fits and starts or they can happen imperceptibly. But inevitably, change will come.
Over the past two weeks, a series of hacker attacks were aimed at the Arizonan iteration of freedom. When the hacker group LulzSec released hundreds of Arizona Department of Public Security internal documents, the members portrayed their motivation as the larger social good. They were protesting SB1070, a policy they view as racist and unjust.
LulzSec’s presumed successor Anti-sec released a manifesto — as part of a hack, of course — that claimed dedication to “the eradication of full-disclosure.” The leaks, the hackers say, are intended to point out carelessness in online security, an implied lazy self-satisfaction.
The next frontier in the definition of freedom is the Internet, the modern town square rendered global. The leaks highlighted the vulnerability of our personal information, much of which is stored online, but the lesson we should take from these attacks is much larger. How do we define freedom on the Internet? Who owns it and why? How do we reach agreement when the whole world and a lot of money is involved? They are big questions with very personal consequences.
Security and freedom sometimes seem to be friends and other times enemies. The hackers argue they are doing the world a service in providing incentives for improved security. Institutions must join the arms race or leave members susceptible to personal harassment — cell phone and Social Security numbers exposed. DPS officials were understandably annoyed to have their personal effects scattered on the information superhighway. But to what effect?
The bottom line in the Arizona hacks was that little information of operational consequence was released. DPS looked vulnerable, but if LulzSec was truly protesting the state’s handling of border issues, DPS — highway patrol — was the wrong choice. Encouraging agencies already inclined toward secrecy to clamp down on information seems a strategy of self-sabotage and counter to the venerated spirit of the First Amendment.
Freedom, as we’ve defined it, depends on information. You are unlikely to have chosen to buy local grass-fed beef for your celebratory burger without a label to tell you it was so, nor the security of knowing the FDA vouched the beef won’t poison you. It’s worth remembering that in our choices — from eating local beef to clicking the Facebook “Like” button — we define freedom.