Don’t cry for hackers, Argentina

You hate the legal system. You lash out against it, in what many would consider a criminal manner. You are caught. And then, suddenly, all is forgiven.

This was the bizarre story that came out of Argentina Tuesday. A group of hackers were accused of breaking into the Supreme Court’s Web

page four years ago and replacing it with pictures of a journalist who had been brutally murdered. The courts in Argentina have been accused of covering up this crime, and the hackers, known as the X-Team (I pity the fool who confuses them with the A-Team) were allegedly trying to raise the case’s profile. In a stunning decision, a judge ruled that the law covers only “”people, things and animals,”” and therefore digital attacks were outside its jurisdiction.

Though the ruling is not expected to set a precedent (the legal system there doesn’t run that way), the story shows Canadians how differently other regions approach the complexities of Internet governance. It also marks yet another weird milestone in Argentina’s unique place in hacker history.

Five years ago, for example, an Argentine hacker named Julio Cesar Ardita was convicted in the United States of breaking into the Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences site from his parent’s apartment in Buenos Aires. He was the first person to be caught by the network equivalent of a wiretap, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s I-Watch surveillance technology. Even here there were legal hoops to jump through; because his charges did not apply to the U.S.-Argentina extradition treaty, Ardita remained free for almost two years after he was apprehended.

Argentina also brought us the legend of (K)Alamar, the hacker who supposedly created the virus generating program that was used by another hacker (who called himself On the Fly) to create the Anna Kournikova virus. Though he reportedly called it quits last year, (K)Alamar gained a strange notoriety in his time. When he last released an updated version of his software the license agreement said users would have to agree to take full responsibility “”for any damage caused by the files you could create”” from a program he said was intended for educational purposes.

Though the X-Team group was supposedly acting on behalf of human rights, hackers have worked just as hard against them. Last June, a group of cyber-criminals managed to destroy the hard disks of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of Argentina’s best known human rights groups formed amid the country’s 1970s dictatorship.

Perhaps this explains the X-Team judge’s reluctance to get involved. According to a report published in 1999, the Argentine government deliberately takes a hands-off approach to regulating the Web. This includes indecent speech. A resolution passed in 1998 asked the country’s service providers to put the following text on their invoices: “”Parents are recommended to exercise reasonable control over the Internet accessed by their children. It is advisable to consult your ISP to obtain suitable advice on programs designed to prohibit access to undesirable sites.””

Though the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission is similarly wary of Web regulation, it is difficult to imagine our government shrugging its shoulders at the digital defacement of online public property. But maybe that’s because most of our big hacker stories to date have been business stories, where the monetary damage to people (if not things and animals) is clear.

The Argentine judge’s ruling warns that there is a “”serious legal void”” that makes cyber crimes hard to prosecute, and in a country burdened with human rights politics his trepidation is understandable. Though Canada and the U.S. are burdened with political struggles of their own, we should be grateful that they have not triggered this sort of legal paralysis. Dark and unfathomable as they may be, this is one void that needs to be filled.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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