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Jack Woehr

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No Starch publisher Bill Pollock on Ryan Harris indictment

November 05, 2009

 Cover of Hacking the Cable Modem In lurid language Wired reports that Ryan "DerEngel" Harris, author of Hacking the Cable Modem , has been federally indicted for "aiding computer intrusion" for his business of selling unlocked cable modems.

Bill Pollock is the founder of No Starch Press, Harris's publisher, which issued a press release No Starch Press Publisher Speaks Out on Hacking and Free Speech. Pollock also published his Thoughts on Indictment of Ryan Harris, Hacking the Cable Modem Author.

I phoned Bill in San Francisco ...

JW: What prompted you to issue your press release?

BP: We have a history of publishing a couple of books people thought were risky. We published Hacking the XBox which had been dropped by Wiley because they were afraid of DMCA issues. Then in 2006 we published Hacking the Cable Modem. I like hardware. I don't see any black-and-white area in terms of people's abilities to hack their own hardware. I think DerEngel's being held up as an example because the cable companies can't stop people from cloning MAC addresses, stealing services, whatever. This is a way to tell them to stop.

I think there's no basis for this action. I read the indictment. I know the guy and I know what he does and I think he's being hung out to dry.

JW: You're not just defending his right to publish, you're defending his right to sell hacked hardware, which I think is what the indictment is about.

BP: It seems to me that the act of selling a hacked cable modem that does things the cable company doesn't want them to do shouldn't be illegal. He's not stealing anything by selling a piece of hardware. Simply having a hacked modem does not mean you are going to steal any kind of service. I can have root over the modem and do things to it. I can then just plug it in and use the regular service. I don't have to steal anything with that modem. It's just kind of cool to have a modem where you can see what's going on and play around with it.

The user has to make a decision, "I'm going to use this modem to clone a MAC address, uncap my service," whatever. But the modems just work like normal modems. The fact that a Ryan Harris can give me a modem that's hacked does not mean I'm going to steal service with it.

JW: Did you talk to your lawyers before you took a position?

BP: No. I don't need to. In the US we have freedom of speech, and I'm free to speak my mind. We also have freedom of the press. Either you test it, or they keep taking liberties away from you.

When we published the book, I talked to people at the Electronic Frontier Foundation whom we have supported for years. I edited the book myself. There's nothing in the book that tells you how to circumvent security. There's no copyright issues on the code. The book has been out 3 years now.

If you want to take me to court because I speak my mind, try to stop me from publishing a book, go for it.

JW: What are people doing for Ryan Harris?

BP: Well, I''ll be talking with the EFF, I introduced Ryan to them years ago. I have some friends who have hacker radio shows, like Off the Hook , the Emmanuel Goldstein show. I was talking to Bernie S who was charged with something very similar and sent to jail.

The thing is, you don't want to rent a cable modem which you can buy for $30, then the cable company pushes out a configuration to the device you bought and blocks stuff on my modem because it's my hardware.

I wanted to figure out what's going on with my connection. I couldn't find anything, then I learned there is a web-based administration panel on the modem that's blocked. When I got it unblocked, I found the levels were wrong. I was having all kinds of problems. I had Comcast coming back and forth to my house. Finally I said, "Here's the administration page, here's what the signals are," and when I showed it to the service guy, he fixed it.

I'm sure that a lot of people were interested in uncapping their cable modems, but the reality is, most people are not doing this anyway, because the cable companies are getting better at finding them.

To arrest Ryan on a charge that carries 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine is ridiculous. He's just selling unlocked hardware. It's like unlocked cell phones.You used to have to pay to have that done, now TMobile does that for you. You could use the same argument, "If you unlock these cell phones, you can use them on another service, it was sold to you at a discount, now you unlock it and go to another provider, you're stealing from the first provider."

It's just as legitimate. Meaning it's not legitimate. Still, it's probaby more legitimate an argument than with the cable modems. The cable modems weren't purchased under contract with the provider. They're third-party devices owned by the persons who buy them.

We're seeing our liberties eroded year after year. I think it's important for people to speak out about this, because it's wrong.



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