Type “Robert Stuart” and “Extension Software” into Google right now and the top search result you’ll find is an October 2012 press release from the New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office. It bears a headline reading “DISTRICT ATTORNEY VANCE ANNOUNCES CHARGES AGAINST SPORTS BOOK.”
That sort of thing makes sense on a basic level: sportsbooks are illegal in New York, so the Manhattan District Attorney would be completely within his rights to file charges against anyone there operating one. Click through to the full press release announcing the charges against Robert Stuart and you see the actual, full headline: “DISTRICT ATTORNEY VANCE ANNOUNCES CHARGES AGAINST SPORTS BOOK SOFTWARE COMPANY AND EXECUTIVES FOR PROMOTING GAMBLING.” Suddenly we’ve gone from a boiler-room operation taking Giants and Knicks bets over the phone to a guy typing code into an old laptop, and that makes a whole lot less sense. Why makes this guy interesting, again?
The impressions one gets from the first search-engine-friendly 70 characters and from the actual headline are quite different – to lift a line from Mark Twain, they’re as different as the lightning and a lightning bug. In fact, the case of Stuart, a 53-year-old software developer whose product is sold legally, is full of all sorts of these differences. Some people call them “contradictions,” but to New York police and prosecutors they’re just business.
Stuart’s company, Extension Software, builds software that provides licensees the infrastructure for taking bets on sports. His software has powered sports books, like VIP Sports in Costa Rica, for well over a decade. In a Wired article published January 3rd, Stuart says the software doesn’t actually place any bets and is only licensed to entities outside the United States. Cyrus Vance says Stuart has knowingly “abetted large-scale illegal gambling in the U.S. and abroad,” but the prosecution won’t even reveal who it is he’s allegedly abetted.
Back in October, when Stuart was originally charged, Vance read from the press release that by licensing his software, Stuart and his co-defendants “created an appetite for further unlawful activity” by creating software that allowed people to keep track of specialized data. That’s a big enough leap of logic that one has to admire it for a while before proceeding. Should a box manufacturer be held responsible for “creating an appetite” for people to send illegal things through the mail? What about telephone manufacturers – do they “create an appetite” for people to break laws by allowing them a way to talk to each other? Thinking like this can let you blame all sorts of people for things they have no control over.
What’s particularly interesting about statements like Vance’s is that he and other D.A.’s don’t talk about about the appetite for “further unlawful activity” among the people who are supposed to be upholding those laws in the first place. The plea agreement that Stuart initially accepted required his “active participation” in ongoing investigations by the D.A. Among other things like “engaging in transactions” and “making phone calls,” he was required to do something a little more unusual: “aiding in the design of software used to obtain records, usernames, passwords, and other information stored on websites.” In other words, they wanted a software developer to empower them to steal private information from all of his clients’ clients, whether or not they were suspected of any crimes (or even located in New York).
If Anonymous or some hacker group did the exact same thing to a sector of the economy that’s paid for the protection of local law – say, a bank too big to fail – the D.A. would accuse them of violating any statute he could shoehorn into an indictment. And yet a chief assistant in Vance’s office maintained to Wired that prosecutors and investigators “have behaved ethically and consistent with their obligation to seek justice in every case.”
In other words, strong-arming a man into committing acts that would be illegal if ordered by anybody but the government is ethical, as is offering the man him no recompense for committing these acts other than freedom from harassment for building software with completely legitimate uses all over the world. At least, they’re ethical if you’re playing for the right side. It seems there’s another difference at play in this case: the difference between “behaving ethically” and “behaving ethically enough.” Just because the prosecutors in Manhattan don’t understand the difference doesn’t mean it’s not there.