In 2013, the case involving Justina Pelletier, a then 15-year-old girl from Connecticut who was held by the state and tortured for over a year, made national news. Among the millions of Americans who followed the reports in horror, was Anonymous hacktivist Martin Gottesfeld, who took immediate action. It is thanks to Gottesfeld that Justina was finally released, and now that he faces up to 25 years in prison for charges under the archaic Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), he needs our help in return.
This story begins in 2013 with Justina Pelletier, who along with her sister, suffers from an invisible condition called mitochondrial disease. This condition can be extremely painful, and it is unfortunately very hard to diagnose. The disease is often scrutinized by doctors, and parents in extreme cases have lost custody of their children for “medical child abuse.” This was the case with Justina.
Justina had developed a case of the flu, which can be dangerous for those with mitochondrial disease. Her parents immediately contacted their doctor. Their doctor suggested they take her to the Boston Children’s Hospital where their gastrointestinal (GI) specialist was located. The situation quickly went downhill from there.
Some of the other doctors at the hospital disagreed with Justina’s original diagnosis, despite the fact they had never treated her before. Psychologists were brought in, and the Pelletier’s demands to see Justina’s GI were ignored. So were their requests for the hospital to consult with her regular physician.
With their egos under assault by the Pelletier’s insistence, the doctors at the Boston Children’s Hospital decided to call in the state’s Department of Children and Families for an investigation. Justina’s parents were accused of medical child abuse, and Justina was sent to the hospital’s notorious Bader 5 psych ward.
The treatments for her mitochondrial disease were discontinued, and for over a year, Justina was kept in solitude to endure tremendous pain. She recalls incidents of laughed at by hospital staff after falling. In another incident, her toenails were torn off when her feet dragged on the floor under the wheelchair they were pushing her in.
Communication with her parents was limited to one 20-minute call, and one hour-long visit per week. Both of these were monitored. Justina was afraid to speak with her parents about her abuse while under supervision. She had to smuggle messages to her parents through pieces of paper she folded into origami. After speaking out publicly about their daughter’s abuse in Bader 5, a judge put the family under a gag order.
Meanwhile, Martin Gottesfeld, a computer engineer and activist for children’s rights, decided to take action. Martin became associated with the Anonymous movement the year before when he brought attention to abuses committed at the Logan River Academy in Utah.
A few days after Justina’s parents had one of her smuggled notes published, Martin took out the Boston Children’s Hospital’s website under #OpJustina. The strike came during one of its largest annual fundraisers, costing the hospital $300k to mitigate, and another $300k in lost donations.
The attack did not compromise patient information or safety, and Martin achieved his goal. He successfully raised awareness of Justina’s story, and put pressure on the hospital. This ultimately led to Justina’s release back into her parent’s custody.
Martin faces charges of conspiracy and intentional damage to a protected computer under the CFAA. The act is widely criticized for being outdated and applied overzealously. The CFAA was written during the Reagan administration to protect government computers after members of Reagan’s administration watched the movie WarGames. This was well before our current technological capabilities.
The CFAA is used broadly now to bring charges against those whose behavior the government disagrees with. The digital rights activist group Electronic Frontier Foundation states:
“Creative prosecutors have taken advantage of this confusion to bring criminal charges that aren’t really about hacking a computer, but instead target other behavior prosecutors dislike.”
Prosecutors are also targeting Martin’s wife, Dana Gottesfeld, “for posting an audio clip from Gottesfeld’s detention hearing, even though Dana obtained the audio from the court reporter,” according to reports.
To save a young girl from the state that was supposed to be protecting her, Martin Gottesfeld sacrificed his freedom. Even behind bars, he continued his activism work through a hunger strike, in which he demanded a commitment by the U.S. Attorney to cease political prosecutions under the CFAA, and to protect children from institutional abuse.
Now more than ever, he and his family need help in return. We are working to bring attention to the Gottesfeld’s story and place pressure on the DOJ and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office.
There are various steps you can take as well; share Gottesfeld’s story with the hashtag #FreeMartyG. You can donate to the Free Marty Campaign by clicking here. To write Martin and offer your support, and to find out how you can help further, click here.
Balcells, Cristy (2014). First, Do No Harm: How We Failed Justina Pelletier and Her Family. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cristy-balcells/first-do-no-harm-how-we-f_b_4843997.html
Bandler, Aaron (2017). Imprisoned Activist Martin Gottesfeld Writes SCATHING Email To Prosecutor Targeting His Wife. The Daily Wire. Retrieved from: http://www.dailywire.com/news/20092/martin-gottesfeld-writes-scathing-email-prosecutor-aaron-bandler
Klimas, Liz (2014). ‘Shocking Note’ Apparently Penned by Justina Pelletier to Her Parents. The Blaze. Retrieved from: http://www.theblaze.com/news/2014/04/15/shocking-note-apparently-penned-by-justina-pelletier-to-her-parents/
Kushner, David (2017). The Hacker Who Cared Too Much. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/how-a-crusade-to-save-children-landed-a-hacker-in-prison-w489735