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Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hacker Wars

Making no pretense of balance or objectivity, Vivien Lesnik Weisman’s excitable documentary “The Hacker Wars” is a forceful indictment of the United States government’s surveillance and prosecution of computer hackers and journalists.

Surveying four main legal actions, including the one against Andrew Auernheimer, a.k.a. Weev, who embarrassed AT&T by revealing weaknesses in its security systems, Ms. Weisman offers a deluge of information. But for those not already versed in the lingo or the people involved, the movie plays like a blurry primer to an anarchic, mysterious world. Hyperkinetic editing and an overabundance of montage are no help as we watch fuzzy faces in grainy video and listen to mumbled words on poor, sometimes subtitled recordings.

Interviewees like the journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwaldand the National Security Agency whistle-blower Thomas A. Drake provide respite from the flurry of acronyms and uninhibited commenters. Around two-thirds of the way in, however, the film catches hold, as the disturbing claims of its subjects — mostly unsubstantiated but nevertheless persuasive — accumulate and clarify.

In particular, the complicated cases of the journalist Barrett Brown (who, at one point, faced more than 100 years in prison on a variety of charges) and the hacker Jeremy Hammond (who recently began serving a 10-year prison term) raise such troubling issues of mass surveillance and data collection that they deserve far greater depth and detail.

With its insider feel and clear bias, “The Hacker Wars” does itself no favors in reaching a wider audience. Yet the behavior it scrutinizes speaks to the essence of democracy and the very definition of citizenship, and, as such, it merits a calmer, more reasoned forum than this one.

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