Open Systems Vulnerability and Freedom of Information

During the Cambridge winter, when mountains of snow grow on streets near sidewalks and thick white carpets cover roofs, the tunnels of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology get busy. Students, professors, visitors, workers, and other members of the community, transit an underground system of pathways that connects the Institute’s buildings and departments. Such interconnectedness resembles an ethos of interdisciplinary and openness where ideas, people, and creativity dynamically circulate. Highly networked, the underground tunnels also carry utilities such as steam heat, water, and network cabling.

Exploring the tunnels has been a popular hacking practice at MIT. I have big memories of drifting through them and discovering surprising sources of sound. I remember, especially, the deep and low drone sounds that resonated under the infinite corridor and below the tunnels that connected buildings 16, 56, and 66. The sounds, sometimes came from machine rooms, cabinets, huge pipes, and closets that were pretty visible and accessible. It was precisely in a wiring closet located under building 16 were Aaron Swartz connected a laptop to the Institute’s network and used it to download thousands of academic articles from JSTOR. Accessing and unlocked closet was a gateway to a powerful communication network, was a direct connection to an open hub. What happens when a system that relies in openness confronts closing regulations? What happens when the flow of information starts to be controlled?

Open systems, as well as their users, are vulnerable. Attempts to close and control them can happen anytime. In the information and network society, anybody can be a criminal for practicing innovative ways of dealing with data. Felony could be many things in the online world depending of who is exercising power and justice. Despite the fact that MIT operates an extraordinarily open physical and virtual network where it is pretty easy to walk buildings and tunnels, to route public IP address via unauthenticated DHCP, and to access a network as a visitor, its system is increasingly regulated and surveilled. The freedom to connect, to engage with information, can be limited given enough pressures from powerful external actors. Sadly, creative hacking practices that once were popular among the MIT community have started to be prosecuted. Abuses of power break open systems and reveal their incompleteness and vulnerability.

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