Reply All: #21 Hack The Police
April 24, 2015 6:26 AM - Subscribe

When Higinio Ochoa got out of prison for hacking in September of 2014, one of the terms of his parole was that he is not allowed to use any internet connected device. We went to his home in Austin to find out how he got caught and what it's like - in 2015 - to go from living online to not having any internet access.
posted by inturnaround (8 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if we're supposed to feel sorry for Mr. Ochoa. I didn't at all. He dug his hole and he can still make a living. The Netflix restrictions are weird, though.

But it does underline a reason why I think the internet isn't a human right. If it was, then it couldn't be denied like this...but I think it's fair to keep people who have abused the network off of it.
posted by inturnaround at 6:54 AM on April 24, 2015

I liked the more serious tone of this piece, and that they used the whole episode to tell the story. As we continue to stagger towards the "internet of things" I wonder how much more difficult it will be for Higinio to function. Chevy is promoting wifi in their cars, including e-mailed diagnostics - can Mr. Ochoa not drive an internet-equipped car? His employer is accommodating now, but how long will they pay a flunkie to type in his code? What if he loses his job - can he file for unemployment without using a computer? The digital divide is growing, but he's actually legally stuck on the other side - yes, due to his own actions - but still not being able to access the internet in any way shows how technology is outpacing the law.
posted by jazon at 7:08 AM on April 24, 2015

It wasn't my intent to make anyone feel sorry for Ochoa. And I don't think Ochoa wants people to feel sorry for him, either. This is from my transcripts:

"There's some people that could say I was morally just. There are some that say what I did was necessary and I was a political prisoner. I broke the law. I went to prison. Case closed. No magic story there."

He knows what he did was against the law, and there was no righteous anger in our conversations. He wasn't out there trying to get press. I had to find him and convince him to talk to me.

But it is weird to live w/o the internet. And to answer you question, Jazon: if he gets written permission he can file for unemployment. Otherwise, he will need to get Kylie to file for him. He can use his television to watch network TV, but not the Chromecast connected to it. He has a whole intranet that he uses as a test environment. But he can't use anything outside of that environment. The exact wording of the terms of his release is: “The defendant shall not use any computer at any location without the prior written permission of the probation officer. The defendant shall not possess or use a phone or any other electronic device that allows access to the internet without prior written permission of the probation officer.” So that would include smart cars.
posted by Alex Goldman at 8:11 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Interesting story. I think I would have preferred the narrative to focus a little more on Higinio's disconnected life than how he got there. I enjoyed hearing about all the limitations he has and how he manages them. Although his story is particularly bizarre, what with the fiancee he'd known for all of six weeks but never met in person moving to the US to be with him and all that.

I didn't feel bad for him necessarily, although I did feel empathetic about all the hoops he has to jump through just to go through modern daily life. I mean some of the things are a bit absurd and sort of technicalities. He can watch Netflix but not if he's controlling the remote? Things are definitely going to be more complicated as things like cars get connected.

He's also extremely lucky that he has Kylie to patiently assist him, and an accommodating employer. I know someone who was in federal prison for computer crimes (technically a sex crime, although it's complicated and actually fairly benign, and he ended up helping the feds put some really bad guys away). He had the same no-internet parole restrictions, and they were much harder for him. He's not a super-savvy, mega-employable programmer like Higinio, nor does he have the family to help him get around the restrictions. It's hard enough for ex-cons to get back on their feet, and this restriction made it a lot harder. Not to say that it was the wrong thing for him, but there was none of this "how can I still use computers without technically touching the net" game.
posted by radioamy at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know if we're supposed to feel sorry for Mr. Ochoa. I didn't at all. He dug his hole and he can still make a living.
As someone whose politics are probably closer to Ochoa than mainstream America, that's an interesting question. Hacking local police departments isn't the best way to bring transparency to a brutal, corrupt, and often blatantly illegal system. . . but, as options for civil disobedience go, it's not the worst idea I've heard. Calling him a political prisoner isn't crazy. On the other hand calling out a system for its brutality and then being *surprised* when it sentences you to a few years of inconvenience would be an odd stance. He's done a fine job of retaining his dignity in the piece.

The thing that surprises me is that he isn't ashamed of doing incredibly stupid things. When you're already posting recognizable photos of your fiancé on hacked FBI-related websites, forgetting to erase exif data takes you form a 9.8 to a 9.9 on the are you fucking kidding me 10-point-scale of hacker incompetence. I've done a lot of stupid things too; far more stupid than Mr. Ochoa's choices, but less consequential. I don't claim he's an intrinsically dumb person. But, when taking on the most powerful nation in the history of the world, handing them free mugshots seems like an idea worthy of scorn. I was surprised not to hear some forehead slapping and regrets.

Also, the fact that his boss employs someone to type up his code is astonishing. If there was ever a perfect use case for OCR, this is it. Not only do they know exactly what font and format he's using, he could easily send three different copies in different fonts and difference the OCR results. Better yet, he could send them barcodes on paper. If hiring typists makes more sense than half a day's effort employing an OCR solution, his employer really shouldn't be in the software business.

That authorities are more comfortable with the mailing of paper than a USB key is also worth a snicker. Aside from volume, there's no real difference. (Not that troglodyte laws haven't been useful to activists in the past.

Also, it's really neat that Alex Goldman is here answering questions. Many thanks!
posted by eotvos at 12:51 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is this guy a really amazing coder, or what? I've been in the tech industry for a long time, and I've both worked as a software engineer as well as hired and managed many of them. I've worked with some truly brilliant developers. People who invented major programming languages and created products we all use daily. And as a manager I'd be hard pressed to think of a single one of them who is so great that I'd hire them if they could only communicate offline and had to send in code via a third party on a usb stick. And to have to process printouts of code? Truly unfathomable.

I feel like there must be more to this part of the story. Who is this company that is willing to employ him under these circumstances and why?
posted by primethyme at 1:56 PM on April 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

primethyme, I was wondering the same thing. I am guessing that he made some pretty close ties in his hacking days and someone from his old life hired him. Because that is a hell of a lot of bullshit to go through to employ a software engineer.
posted by radioamy at 8:10 PM on April 27, 2015

I don't know as much about the coding side of thing, but I really thought it was well-balanced in focus, looking at his activities leading up to getting caught as well as the limitations he's been placed under since release.

I know it's not surprising, exactly, but it still intrigues me politically how someone can be equally at ease making "Tits or GTFO" jokes and to be revved up by the Occupy movement.
posted by psoas at 8:45 AM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

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