In an August Newsweek article, William J. Dobson tried defending Haystack and its creator–Austin Heap–as a new generation of “Hacktivists” eschewing silver bullets for a “go-slow” approach to fighting online censorship. Dobson’s article was the last gasp of Haystack media praise. A month later on September 13, Heap shut down Haystack and its website, the Censorship Research Center, in response to criticism over the program’s safety by Foreign Policy‘s Evgeny Morozov, who later likened Haystack’s collapse as the internet’s version of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Haystack’s  rise to fame and sudden fall, and the amount of publicity the program received highlights the limits of micro-blogging and raises questions about the media’s complicity in hyping online social media.

If you haven’t heard of it before, Haystack’s purpose was to provide users anonymity by rerouting traffic through proxies and making use of sites like Twitter and Facebook seem as innocuous as browsing weather reports. The software program was the invention of a 26-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Heap, who created Haystack in response to the 2009 Iranian election protests—one of the two so-called “Twitter Revolutions.” (The other being the 2009 civil unrest in Moldova.)

Heap’s efforts earned him notoriety, including being titled an Innovator of the year by the Guardian, and Heap was quick to capitalize on the attention. In a now infamous August 9, 2009 interview with the BBC, Heap touted his product’s safety:

[Haystack] is completely secure for the user so the government can’t snoop on them. We use many anonymising steps so that identities are masked and it is as safe as possible so people have a safe way to communicate with the world.

But that safety has proven illusory. Now, after Haystack’s source code has finally been released, it’s clear massive holes in Haystack’s programming could’ve allowed Iranian authorities to track down and punish users. In particular, as Simon Phipps of Simon Says has pointed out, routing Haystack’s traffic through a single site was akin to fixing the program with a “big red self-destruct button.”

That Haystack could be so flawed is disturbing; but what’s worse is the media’s  fanning of Haystack’s notoriety without doing a basic fact-check. Jillian C. York had some sharp criticism for the media—and Heap in particular—on her blog:

I also firmly place blame on the media, which elevated the status of a person who, at best was just trying to help, and a tool which very well could have been a great thing, to the level of a kid genius and his silver bullet, without so much as a call to circumvention experts.

…While Heap and his partners were out pushing Haystack to the media, actual Iranian human beings were being used as lab rats, to test a product that could potentially put their very lives in danger.

Hopefully, Haystack will prove a lesson, and the next “big thing” in social media will be greeted with more skepticism. But I have my doubts.

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