When a malicious hacker broke into the e-mails of George W. Bush’s family and friends last week, the news coverage and public reaction focused on a group of self-portraits the former U.S. president had painted and shared with friends. Columnists and pundits gleefully dissected the paintings to look for clues into the state of mind of Mr. Bush, and they discussed his ability as an artist (he was generally praised for his work). But entirely lost in the discussion was that these were stolen images, taken from the e-mail accounts of private citizens. At what point do the media and the public become complicit in criminal acts when they fail to see them for what they are?
The hacker was bent on embarrassing the Bush family, in particular George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush, the two former presidents. The e-mail exchanges between the two men and their relatives and friends provided details into their private lives that were mostly mundane but which also included at least one personal security code. There were also intimate details about the gravity of the illness that hospitalized the senior Bush last December. The hacker boasted of his accomplishment; he said he had hacked hundreds of private e-mail accounts and called the episode “another chapter in the game.”
This is no game. The FBI is investigating and hopes to be able to lay criminal charges. Hacking is a terrible crime. It can seem funny when it happens to powerful public figures, but it wouldn’t be funny if it happened to you. It could be done by, or on behalf of, an estranged partner or someone else who wishes you ill. There are already revenge websites on the Internet, where jilted lovers post embarrassing photos and messages from their exes in an effort to hurt them; there is a market for the contents of your private life. And it should be noted that computer experts say the hack into the Bush family and friends’ accounts was not a sophisticated one; it was most likely a case of the account users having obvious passwords that the hacker was able to guess at. In a world where one of the most common passwords is “password,” we are all vulnerable.
There was another well-publicized hack on Monday. Someone broke into the emergency alert system of two Montana television stations and interrupted programming to warn the public about zombies rising from the ground in several local counties. All very funny, if you are of an age that is amused by zombie jokes. But again, it was an illegal act. And, like the Bush case, it was ultimately no different than the cellphone hacking that scandalized Britain and the world last year.
Until the public begins to see computer hacking for the crime that it is, hacking will continue to be commonplace. We all need to wake up and think twice about trading in the fenced goods of Internet thieves. We need to shame the hackers, not be their willing accomplices.