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St. Louis Cardinals F.B.I. Investigation: 'Hacking,' intellectual property, and the court of public opinion

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Who is ultimately responsible doesn't really matter in cases like these, it's only who the public thinks is responsible.

When tipped off to the New York Times' story on Tuesday morning, my initial reaction was: "The organization could not have possibly been that stupid about corporate espionage, could they?"

Two days later, I still think that initial reaction is probably the most correct one. I remain open to updating my priors should any other information come out, but this certainly looks like the work of an internet amateur with lots of time on their hands and a boatload of vengeance for Jeff Luhnow.

Who's to say why that is, and any discussion of it at this point would be purely speculative in nature, but that doesn't really matter does it? This person worked for the Cardinals, and if you've received so much as a ticket from the organization or wear Cardinal apparel to work on casual Friday, that immediately indicts the entire organization in any wrong doing in the court of public opinion by merely having agency with an individual acting upon their own free will.

"Of course," say the conspiracy theorists, "that's exactly what John Mozeliak would want you to think."

You can't reason one out of a position that they didn't reason themselves into, so there's no substantive conversation to have with a person who's already decided that the only reason for the Cardinals' massive success over the last two decades is that they must have been "cheating" the entire time.

Such is the state of our discourse in Sportslandia.

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The passage I found most interesting from the Times story was this one.

Investigators believe that Cardinals personnel, concerned that Mr. Luhnow had taken their idea and proprietary baseball information to the Astros, examined a master list of passwords used by Mr. Luhnow and the other officials when they worked for the Cardinals. The Cardinals employees are believed to have used those passwords to gain access to the Astros’ network, law enforcement officials said.

Apparently even the brightest analytical minds manages his passwords like a noob.

The most interesting thing, however, is the reason for the alleged attack: Whoever this was seemed to think that Mr. Luhnow had taken proprietary information from the Cardinals information system and built it into his system with the Astros.

Two things strike me:

  1. If one believes they stole your info, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to go looking for information in the other team's database would it? Because you would already have that information.
  2. If the Cardinals truly built an information system or algorithm that nobody else in baseball had, it's only really proprietary if the Cardinals have intellectual property protections on it. It's very likely that they don't, as IP for software and algorithms is very hard to come by (and especially so when developed using public data sets), so it's hard to believe that the Cardinals brass really cared as they likely would have expected Luhnow to develop something similar to Redbird when he took the GM job in Houston.
That said, it doesn't mean that someone can't be pissed off about the whole thing, and that seems like the likely motive for this "hack": To cause punitive damage to someone who you believe has injured you, by way of publicly embarrassing them.

If you believe everything written about Silicon Valley in the 70's and 80's or you just enjoy Mike Judge's Silicon Valley television show on HBO currently, you likely know that this is just business as usual when it comes to software-as-a-solution: When you put a lot of brilliant people together working on similar problems, what tends to happen is that free-floating ideas tend to end up in similar versions of problem solving algorithms, which lead to accusations of theft, feelings of jealousy, and, sometimes, a lot of pending litigation. Pending litigation that usually is meant to either slow down and impede a competitors progress or as a flanking mechanism to ensure that they don't sue you for the exact same thing, which usually happens anyway, so getting yours on the docket first helps out a lot.

Is that what's going on here?  Likely not, other than some jealous feelings toward the former GM who hired everyone but you when he left, but stole some of your ideas and took them on as his own. True or not, it doesn't really matter: If you feel you've been wronged, you feel that you must act, and in the good 'ol boy dominated baseball world has always been one in which taking a supposed slight head on is always thought to be the best method, when many times it leads to the worst possible outcome because you haven't thought the entire thing through.

Did this "hacker" know that what they were doing was wrong? Almost certainly. Did they know that they could spend seven years in prison if they got caught? Likely not -- this has all the indications of being a "prank", akin to putting bubbles in someone's locker or rubbing a little Icy Hot in their jock strap after they gave you a dressing down in front of the rest of the team when you missed the cut off man the night before. That's why the information was published anonymously to the internet*** -- you don't do that if your intent is to covertly spy on another organization's internal conversations and scouting reports.

The intent doesn't really matter when the act itself is illegal, however, and by personally seeking vengeance, this "hacker" did themselves and their own organization a great deal of harm in process. We'll likely know the culprit or culprits before too much longer, but I'll be shocked if any of the Cardinals top level executives even knew about this prior to the F.B.I. letting them know about it.

***The only real winner here?  Deadspin. Not only did they get to publish all the information gleaned from the "hack" on the web for a boatload of clicks, but they also get to take the other side and publicly shame the Cardinals organization and the person who provided them the information in the first place. Principles? Integrity? So last century, apparently.