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Subpoena Me, Too!

By Annalee Newitz

PERHAPS YOU weren't aware of my deep personal connection to Adrian Lamo, the so-called "homeless hacker" recently charged with two counts of illegally accessing The New York Times computer systems. Yes, it's true. He and I may not be acquainted, but we share the same dream. We both believe in truth and justice and all that crap. But that's not what I'm talking about. More importantly, Lamo and I have both dreamed of stealing information from the Lexis/Nexis database. But only Lamo had the hacker know-how to pull it off. I wasn't able to get in on any of the action when he did it, which is too bad, because I have a lot of things I want from Lexis/Nexis.

The Lexis/Nexis database, you see, is an information gold mine. Owned by semievil übercorporation Reed Elsevier, it contains the full text of articles from hundreds of newspapers, magazines, legal documents and public records.

And here's the beauty part: it's all full-text searchable. You can look for mentions of a particular movie in articles published between 1991 and 1992. Or figure out how many times reporters used the word "cheesy" to describe the latest installment in the Star Wars cycle. You can search through zillions of legal decisions and deeds to property. For media nerds like me, it's a candy box.

But it's damned expensive. Not sort-of-annoying-expensive like a new DVD. I'm talking $75 a week just to search newspapers. If you wanted to search every part of the Lexis/Nexis database, all the legal documents and records, it could run you $600 per week. Free weekly papers and independent web publications can't afford to buy accounts for their reporters, and certainly the reporters can't afford to buy them on their own.

At most alternative media outlets where I've worked, there has always been some person who had a Lexis/Nexis password that they'd kept from when they were working at a Condé Nast publication or something like that. This person is like the loadie who's holding all the whippets at a party.

A crowd groups around him or her, hands out, begging for just one more turn with the balloon. The bearer of the Lexis/Nexis dispenser can choose whom he or she wishes to grace with a search that day. Information junkies grovel at his or her feet, muttering phrases like "box-office statistics from 1992" or "RIAA lawsuits filed over the last month."

Of course a posh place like The New York Times has a corporate subscription. And Lamo, fighting for the little guy as always, figured that he'd liberate some information while he was breaking into the Times' computer network. He was striking a blow for data serfs everywhere. OK, he didn't actually tell me that. But that's how I felt when I heard that he'd stolen five Lexis/Nexis passwords from the Times. Unfortunately, Lamo used them to run searches on himself, his friends and his family. That was lame (pardon the obvious pun). He should have sent those passwords to me.

Of course, if he had, I'd be getting notices from the feds like a whole bunch of other journalists are right now. Apparently, the main "evidence" the federal government has used to charge Lamo came from journalists' accounts of his exploits in published articles.

So they're sending notices to journalists who wrote about Lamo telling them to save all their notes in anticipation of a subpoena for them. The feds are standing on pretty shaky legal ground here: there are countless laws protecting journalists from warrants for their notes. Plus, the law they're invoking to get these subpoenas comes from a section in the USA-Patriot Act that's only supposed to be used for getting information from "providers of electronic communications services" like ISPs. As Mark Rasch asked in a recent column, are online journalists now in the same class as Internet access providers and phone companies? Maybe my readers should be paying me monthly utility fees.

Adding insult to injury, The New York Times is claiming that Lamo's use of the Lexis/Nexis passwords cost them more than $300,000 in "damages." The service is expensive, yeah, but give me a break. You're talking mondo searches over a period of years to rack up a bill like that. I mean, I have elaborate masturbatory fantasies about running massive Lexis/Nexis searches, and even I cannot come up with the supermega orgasma-search that would merit such a ridiculous number. Maybe I should dream harder.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who once spent eight hours straight at a Lexis/Nexis terminal in the UC Berkeley library.

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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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