In the fifth episode of the second season of Netflix’s addictive and massively popular series, “House of Cards,” Barrett Brown is mentioned by the series’ hacker character, Gavin. Modeled on some of the real-life hackers whose names have grabbed headlines over the years, Gavin is under the thumb of the FBI, and he asks for Barrett Brown’s freedom in exchange for services rendered.
So who is Barrett Brown? And why should you care?
He is the founder of Project PM, a wildly detailed website that is terrifying in its complexity. Founded in 2009, Project PM attempts to expose the deep connections between the US government and the so-called “cyber security industrial complex.”
While it’s far from complete, hackers, journalists, researchers, and former intelligence community employees contribute to Project PM from around the world. Its wiki pages link to information like a possible secret indictment against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the leaked HBGary emails that detail a government plan to smear journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the names of countless sub-corporations and dummy organizations of intelligence firms and the products they make.
“Without Barrett Brown, tons of this research would likely have gone unearthed,” reported a profile on Brown in Vice magazine. “Besides a few journalists, not many people have been looking into this information.”
Besides his work with Project PM, Brown is a journalist and information activist currently facing 105 years in jail for disseminating a link to documents obtained by hackers that included the personal information, credit card numbers and emails of employees at a security contractor called Stratfor. However, Brown did not participate in the hacks against Stratfor, nor is he accused of playing any role in the breach. He is accused of linking to the documents, and now faces 17 counts, including identity theft and trafficking in stolen credit cards.
“Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty,” said Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders in a September issue of Rolling Stone. “The sentence that he is facing is absurd and dangerous.”
A New York Times profile of Brown and his case explained that federal authorities “are suggesting that to share information online is the same as possessing it or even stealing it… And the magnitude of the charges is confounding. Jeremy Hammond, a Chicago man who pleaded guilty to participating in the actual hacking of Stratfor in the first place, is facing a sentence of 10 years.”
One of Brown’s most fervent supporters and closest friends is Gregg Housh, a Boston-area activist widely considered to be one of the founders of the Anonymous movement. Housh acted as a consultant for the second season of House of Cards and specifically assisted in creating a realistic hacker character burned and extorted by the FBI – not unlike his friend Barrett Brown.
“The show wanted to create an authentic character for the hacker. They reached out to me online and asked if I would be interested in consulting,” Housh told BDCwire. “I helped with some research and making the hacker character a little more realistic than we normally see in Hollywood.”
Housh said he was happy to see the mentions of Barrett make it into the final edit of the season, and detailed his experience in an article for The Guardian today.
“The show is dedicated to apolitical realism, but including him was one little piece of truth that helps to make the world more authentic,” wrote Housh.
Kevin Gallagher was also pleased, as the face and founder of the Free Barrett Brown community.
“We’re really happy that Barrett’s name made it into this series, because it will expose a whole new audience to what’s happening with him,” Gallagher said. “The fact that the character Gavin, who views himself as a politically-motivated hacker but is stuck under the thumb of the FBI, opts to ask for Brown’s release as one of his demands really attests to the real-life role Brown had working with Anonymous and how hard the authorities have come down on him.”
In a world where the controversial faces of hacker culture like Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, and Aaron Swartz are now familiar in the mainstream press, Brown stands alone. He was never a hacker; he always considered himself a journalist, pushing the limits of freedom of speech online.
Brown is a complex and problematic figure. He is not accepted by traditional journalists who don’t agree with the lines he blurred by participating in digital activism. Nor was he ever fully recognized by some members of Anonymous who resented his attention-grabbing public persona. They called him a “famewhore” more often than not, and Gawker’s Adrian Chen has called him a “a megalomaniacal troll.”
Unlike the Aaron Swartzes of the world, Brown is not a sympathetic character. It is difficult to martyr him. He’s been accused of being egomaniacal, paranoid, and stubborn. He is a recovering heroin addict. He chain-smokes more than the average Russian Bond villain. He’s unapologetic. He has threatened federal agents’ families in retaliation for conspiracy charges against his mother. He has threatened members of Anonymous in online forums and in public.
But if Brown is convicted, the ramifications for digital journalism and information sharing could be significant. The case raises serious questions about what we can legally share in the digital space, and where the government is willing to draw a line in the sand. Brown’s case could also set a precedent criminalizing actions like linking, which the New York Times, The Guardian, the Washington Post, and any other outlet that links to stolen files would be guilty of as well.
Even Chen, one of Brown’s most outspoken critics has said, “the charges against Brown give me shivers as a journalist.”
“House of Cards’” Gavin does not consider himself a journalist like Brown – in fact, [SPOILER ALERT] he turns on one. But unlike the almost completely implausible plot that drives the other parts of the series, the hacker story is based in reality. Gavin was as well-written as any of the other characters, but his plea for clemency for Brown merges the “House of Cards” universe with this one in a way that shows the viewer an inside look at the everyday hacker’s lifestyle.
[Update: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Barrett Brown threatened the family of an FBI agent with violence. He actually threatened to "dox" or publicize personal information about them.]