The Case For GeoHot

George Hotz—better known as GeoHot—might be the most famous hardware hacker in the world. He unlocked the iPhone so people could use it with any carrier and hacked the PS3 so it would play bootlegged games. Some of GeoHot's hacks are clearly illegal, but are they wrong?

You might recall, Sony didn't take Hotz's hack lying down. The company sued him for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. GeoHot settled his case with Sony and admitted no wrongdoing so we don't know how a court would have ruled on the matter, but as Woz tells David Kushner in The New Yorker there's a fairly strong case that GeoHot should be left alone:

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, who hacked telephone systems early in his career, sent Hotz a congratulatory e-mail. "It was like a story out of a movie of someone who solves an incredible mystery," Wozniak told me. "I understand the mind-set of a person who wants to do that, and I don't think of people like that as criminals. In fact, I think that misbehavior is very strongly correlated with and responsible for creative thought."

For his part GeoHot has never been too worried about the legality of his hacks. He says he knows the difference between what's right and wrong:

"I live by morals, I don't live by laws," he went on. "Laws are something made by assholes."

But where we draw that line remains an open question. Can an arbitrary moral compass effectively direct a hacker? After Sony sued GeoHot, Anonymous took up his cause and launched attacks on the company. Seventy-seven million Playstation Network accounts were compromised in one of the largest data security breaches of all time. GeoHot publicity condemned these attacks—citing the old distinction between the hacker who seeks to cause harm and the one who just wants to take things apart to see how they work.

GeoHot says his non-professional hacking days are over. The New Yorker piece's closing anecdote seems to show that the question of what's right and what's legal seem to have very different answers. After the Sony case was settled, GeoHot accepted an invitation from Sony. He sat in front of a room of Sony engineers who were eager to learn more about how he'd beaten their system. Maybe they didn't like GeoHotz, but they had to no choice but to respect him. [The New Yorker]