Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to impose a sentence of five years against Matthew Keys, who was found guilty last year on three counts of criminal hacking under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That federal law, which was passed in 1984, was what the late activist Aaron Swartz was prosecuted under. Last year, President Barack Obama called for Congress to expand prison sentences for those found guilty under this law.
Keys worked previously as an online producer for KTXL Fox 40, a Sacramento, California-based television station. Prosecutors argued that in December 2010, shortly after his dismissal, he handed over login credentials to a Tribune Media content management system (CMS), which allowed members of Anonymous to make unauthorized changes to a Los Angeles Times story. (At the time, both companies were both owned by Tribune Media.) Those changes amounted to a short-lived prank: they lasted only 40 minutes, and there is little evidence that the prank was widely noticed.
Criminal charges were not filed until March 2013.Even after he was found guilty, Keys continued to deny the government’s narrative.
In a brief interview with Ars after his trial concluded, he described the prosecution’s theory as “total bullshit.”
“A sentence of five years imprisonment reflects Keys’s culpability and places his case appropriately among those of other white-collar criminals who do not accept responsibility for their crimes,” Matthew Segal, an Assistant United States Attorney, wrote in the Thursday sentencing memorandum.
In the 12-page filing, Segal explained that, although Keys initially “succeeded in deflecting suspicion away from himself,” the FBI changed course after it reviewed chat logs found on the computer belonging to Wesley “Laurelai” Bailey, a former Anonymous member. Those chat logs between Bailey and Ryan Ackroyd (aka “Kayla”), included a line where Kayla wrote: “Iol he’s not so innocent and we have logs of him too, he was the one who gave us passwords for LA times, fox40 and some others, he had superuser on alot of media”
Segal explains further that Keys’ attack was “an online version of urging a mob to smash the presses for publishing an unpopular story,” adding that Keys employed “means that challenge core values of American democracy.”
All the way back to the “school bulletin”
Keys’ defense lawyers filed their own sentencing memorandum on Wednesday, asking the court to impose no prison time at all or go with a “non-custodial sentence.” The 69-page filing goes to great lengths to illustrate Keys lengthy history in journalism, going way back to his elementary school days when he edited the school bulletin. “In recent years, Matthew’s sacrifices have paid off in the form of impactful journalism that has received national attention,” wrote Jay Leiderman, his attorney, who has also worked on many other Anonymous-related cases. “His stories have encouraged discourse, influenced policy and won the attention and accolades from his peers in the industry, public interest groups and even law enforcement officials.”
Leiderman also notes that if the government’s recommendations stand, “[Keys] faces a far more severe sentence than any member of Lulzsec served. 60 months, which the Government seeks, would be more than any person engaged in hacking crimes during this period—by about double!”
George David Sharpe, aka “Sharpie,” the man who actually perpetrated the hack against the Los Angeles Times, has never been charged in the US nor in his native UK, according to Leiderman.
The defense lawyer also pointed to a 1987 incident where Tribune-owned WGN-TV had its signal hijacked for about 30 seconds.
Those perpetrators were never found, but as Leiderman concluded:
Unlike hijacking a TV signal, altering the content of one LA Times article did not render the rest of the website inaccessible, posed no immediate or future danger or threat to the public and did not—by the government’s own admission—cause any lasting damage to the computer equipment used to operate the website or the website itself.
Keys’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 23, 2016 in a federal courtroom in Sacramento, California, and Ars will attend.