Aleynikov goes free

By Felix Salmon
February 17, 2012
Choire Sicha, as being very happy that Sergey Aleynikov is once again a free man.

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Count me in, with Choire Sicha, as being very happy that Sergey Aleynikov is once again a free man. To cut a long story short, Aleynikov used to work in high-frequency trading for Goldman Sachs, earning $400,000 a year. He then got offered a job in Chicago, earning three times that amount. So he accepted the new job. On his last day at Goldman, he uploaded to an external server various bits of code that he had worked with at Goldman. He claimed that the code was benign open-source material; Goldman claimed that it could be used to “manipulate markets”.

Goldman’s claim backfired in one respect, in that it sparked a thousand semi-informed articles about high-frequency trading and how dangerous it is: articles which did Goldman’s reputation no good at all.

On the other hand, the claim did have its chief intended effect — it got U.S. authorities extremely excited, to the point at which they charged Aleynikov with criminal activity under the Economic Espionage Act.

Now the EEA was designed — and was initially used — to prosecute very different behavior, chiefly employees at defense contractors taking top-secret information and giving it straight to the Chinese government. The kind of thing which can absolutely be considered espionage.

The secrets at defense contractors, of course, are secret for reasons of national security. The secrets at investment banks and hedge funds, by contrast, are secret purely for reasons of profit: they reckon that if they have some clever algorithm which nobody else has, then that makes it easier for them to profit from it. Which is why it was always a stretch for the government to use the EEA to prosecute Aleynikov — indeed, it is why it was always a stretch for Aleynikov to be criminally prosecuted at all. Goldman could have brought a civil case against him, but instead they got their wholly-owned subsidiary, the U.S. government, to come down on him so hard that he ended up with an eight-year sentence. Violent felons frequently get less.

The forthcoming decision from the Second Circuit is likely to be a doozy; I’m told that the judges shredded the prosecutors during the oral hearing. And certainly their decision to enter a judgment of acquittal, rather than any kind of retrial, is a strong indication that they handed down this order with extreme prejudice against prosecutorial overreach.

Is it the government’s job to expend enormous prosecutorial resources protecting Goldman Sachs from competition? The Second Circuit certainly doesn’t seem to think so, and neither do I. Aleynikov’s actions were certainly stupid, and quite possibly illegal. But the way that Goldman managed to sic New York prosecutors on him bearing the sledgehammer of the EEA was far from edifying. And I’m glad that both Goldman and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney are surely feeling very chastened right now.

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