The Arkansas hacker who became a more pugnacious disciple of Aaron Swartz can go free, a federal appeals court ruled this morning.
The news prompted giddy headlines throughout the tech blogosphere, many of which treated Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer as a cause celebre. "Weev Is Free!" TechCrunch trumpeted. "Hacker Weev's Chilling Conviction Is Overturned," said the more measured headline on Huffington Post.
Journalists have assiduously followed the hacker's case since 2012, when a New Jersey jury convicted him of gathering the personal data of 140,000 iPad users from a publicly available AT&T site, and leaking it to Gawker. Weev said he wanted to expose flaws in AT&T's privacy settings, and maintained, in an impassioned speech delivered the day of his sentencing, that he'd been sent to jail "for arithmetic."
His obdurate stance and flamboyant media persona drew international attention, as did the timing of the case; it roughly coincided with the prosecution of famed hacker Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide before he could be tried for downloading academic articles from JSTOR. Both Weev and Swartz were tried under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a controversial law originally meant to discourage hackers from drilling past a firewall. In recent years, the government has used it to go after renegade programmers who feel compelled to make information accessible to the public.
That was the crux of Weev's case: It put a law on trial, in the guise of an individual. In the end, Weev's polarizing, trollish, douchebag personality was less important than the conflict he represented.
But the three-judge appeals panel managed to completely overlook that debate, when it vacated Weev's conviction this morning.
Without invoking the CFAA at all, the appeals judges argued that Weev's case should have been tried in his home state of Arkansas, rather than New Jersey. The feds had deemed New Jersey a proper locale because some 4,500 of the jilted iPad users' email addresses had originated there; the appeals judges disagreed.
So Weev is free, but not for the reason we'd hoped.
"Well, we're obviously pleased with the court's opinion," says Hanni Fakhoury, a San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer who represented Weev on the appeal. Fakhoury adds that the venue problems in Weev's case were "significant and dangerous" -- ie, hauling Weev 1,000 miles from his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas was part of a sinister legal strategy. He says the appeals court also supplied some important updates on the constitutional issues being vetted in the case, which could come into play should Weev be retried.
And that's the thing. He could be retried. And so could the law used to convict him.