Tufte and his friend decided that they would make the longest long distance phone call in history. They called New York "Time of Day" via Hawaii, and left the call open for about two months. (For those of you youngsters who don't know what "Time of Day" was, it was a number you called, and a Bell System female voice would say "The time is now ____ and ___ seconds". And would repeat every 10 seconds.)
A couple of months later, Tufte got a phone call from a security executive at AT&T. "I think I know what you're calling about" said Tufte. The caller was a bit of a techy, and expressed admiration for the pair. Some graduate students at other universities had done similar things, but Tufte and his friend were the first undergraduates. And he complained their system was of poor quality. The amount of noise in their oscillator made it hard to for the AT&T security people to figure out what they were doing.
But why did they shut off the call? the AT&T guy asked. "Once we had set the record, we were done" said Tufte.
AT&T could have ruined Tufte's life by bringing in the police, but they didn't. They made sure that Tufte and his friend told no one, didn't try to sell their system to the Mafia, and didn't cause anyone harm.
|Edward Tufte on January 20, 2013|
CC BY-NC-SA by Schwartzray
After Swartz's brush with the law when he was caught downloading JSTOR articles at MIT, Swartz gave his friend Tufte a call. "Would you happen to know Bill Bowen?" Of course Tufte did, dating to his early career as a professor at Princeton when Bill Bowen was serving as its President. Apparently Bowen had been asked by the Mellon Foundation to help JSTOR figure out what to do about the Aaron Swartz situation. As President of the Mellon Foundation, Bowen, now retired, had helped create JSTOR.
So Tufte decided it was time to out himself as an ex-phone phreaker. He wrote Bowen an email. If AT&T could decline to ruin Tufte's life, maybe JSTOR could find the courage to make sure that Swartz's abilities would not be wasted. Tufte was phreaking before Captain Crunch, before Steves Wozniak and Jobs. Those guys turned out to have lots more to contribute.
JSTOR did the right thing. Not only did it tell the Federal prosecutors that it had come to a satisfactory arrangement with Swartz, but it took significant steps to advance Swartz's (and JSTOR's!) agenda af making information more accessible to everyone. (more on this in Part 2, tomorrow)
But apparently MIT wasn't quite as happy about the situation. And Stephen Heymann, a prosecutor in a US Attorney's office that's been described as one of the nation's most immoral, wanted Swartz's conviction for his resumé and wouldn't let go. They let loose a superseding indictment containing 13 felonies, and threatened Swartz with 35 years in prison if he didn't plead guilty to felonies and serve jail time.
Under the pressure of prosecution, and in the stupidity of a no-win situation, Aaron Swartz committed suicide a week ago. We'll never know what he might have contributed in his next 26 years.
But the relentless and disproportionate prosecution of young, computer-adept disruptors continues.
Sitting just behind me at the memorial was a fellow known as "Weev". Weev looked a lot better than his mug-shot, but he's been convicted of a felony and faces 10 years in prison for "identity theft" which is all that's left of a prosecution stemming from his exposure of a security hole in AT&T's implementation of iPad signups. That's right, AT&T screws up their security, and Weev gets prosecuted because because he's acted inconsiderately and used IRC without thinking how it might sound to a prosecutor.
The outrage that simmered at the memorial service tonight will probably explode and ruin Stephen Heymann's life; the career of Carmen Ortiz, the head of the Massachussets Prosecutors office, is officially toast. It's mean, but I'll probably enjoy reading about how sad that is. But there are still real people feeling the boot of a system that doesn't want to change itself to apply justice to a changing world. Maybe we should help them.
Update (1/20/13): @dancow has posted a transcript of Tufte's remarks.
Update (1/22/13): corrected description of signaling network based on contributed comment
Update (7/29/13): somehow I missed the publication of Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone. Oh, and don't miss the episode of Radiolab from a year ago on Joybubbles.